Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin will have hundreds of problems for which to find solutions; after all, that is why he was elected. One of the most curious problems he faces is getting rid of unneeded monuments. Valuable real estate is rife with outdated or unneeded monuments; there are literally thousands of them. Don’t get me wrong, given Russia’s suffering through during World War II and the millions who lost their lives — not to mention their property — most of the commemoration is warranted.
Getting rid of some monuments can be easy. Consider the statute of Felix Dzerzhinski, founder of the infamous Russian secret police, which used to stand on a pedestal in front of KGB headquarters. When the U.S.S.R. was crumbling, the statute was unceremoniously removed as Russian crowds made their attitude toward that part of Soviet life clear.
One wouldn’t think that dealing with no longer relevant memorials is something that would land on Putin’s desk. However, it will. In fact, one of his major dilemmas is what to do an extraordinary monument — the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin and the mausoleum that houses it.
Lenin himself did not want to be embalmed and placed on display next to the Kremlin. He had requested tobe buried in St. Petersburg alongside his mother. What’s more, if he knew that Jozef Stalin’s body was placed near his, Lenin would have turned over in his grave. Stalin remained there until 1961 when he was removed after Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “Secret Speech” outlining in detail the enormity of Stalin’s crimes against the Soviet people. Stalin’s body was moved to the Kremlin Wall, where it was buried alongside other Soviet “heroes.” It remains there today.
A man named Vladimir Kozhin, who heads the Kremlin’s property-management department and overseas maintenance of the mausoleum, believes Lenin’s request to be buried near his mother should be granted. He also said he believes the granite and marble mausoleum should be torn down. Rumors suggest that Putin feels the same way. Quoting Kozhin, “Nobody likes this cemetery in the center of Moscow.” Every morning there is a long line of tourists waiting to see the Soviet leader’s waxy-looking remains.
Assuming that is Putin’s point of view, it would seem a simple matter to sign an order to have Lenin’s remains shipped to St. Petersburg. However,as is the case elsewhere, politics interferes. Removing Lenin’s body would have tremendous symbolic meaning. After all, the U.S.S.R. only collapsed about 20 years ago, and many Russians still long for the past. They would resent the removal of Lenin’s body because it would symbolize a firm break with the Soviet Union. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, raised the issue in the 1999. He said it was “neither human nor Christian to display in public the body of someone who died a long time ago.” But he backed down when the Communist Party objected.
If Putin tries to move it now, Communist Party members could be expected to oppose it and even lead demonstrations opposing it — something Putin does not need in the aftermath of questions about the validity of the presidential election.
For those like Putin who want to move Lenin to St. Petersburg, there is hope in the larger demograhics. In 1990 72 percent of Russians told pollsters that Lenin was history’s “most important world figure.” By 2010 it had fallen to 34 per cent. Furthermore, a 2011 poll of Internet users drew 345,000 responses and found that 67 percent support for finally granting Lenin’s wish. Time would appear to be on Putin’s side. He has a six-year term, and members of the Communist Party seem to be dying off. To again quote Kozhin, “The older generation for whom the mausoleum is a sacred place are leaving us rather fast.”
This raises the question of where Putin would stand to view parades in Red Square. The Russians would come up with something appropriate. Another question involves what to do with Medical Biological Technologies, the entity that overseas Lenin’s body.
So what does all this mean? I think it means that anyone dying to see the mummified remains of Lenin should consider making a trip to Moscow in the near future.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.