Could one of the enduring symbols of the Soviet Union – the mausoleum containing Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed corpse – soon disappear from Red Square?
Vladimir Kozhin, the head of the Kremlin’s property-management department, says he would like to see Lenin’s body buried, and the granite-and-marble mausoleum that houses it dismantled. More importantly, Mr. Kozhin – whose office is responsible for the maintenance and development of Red Square and the Kremlin – believes Russia’s most powerful man, Prime Minister and president-elect Vladimir Putin, feels the same way.
“Nobody likes this cemetery in the centre of Moscow,” Mr. Kozhin said in an interview at his office, a short walk from where tourists queue each morning to see the former Soviet leader’s waxy-looking remains. “I don’t want to speak for [Mr. Putin] but yes, I think he agrees with me.”
Removing Lenin from Red Square – where he has lain embalmed since shortly after his death in 1924 – would be a hugely symbolic step for a country still struggling to emerge from the shadow of the USSR. Russia formally abandoned communism when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, but nostalgia for the former empire remains high, particularly among older Russians.
The country has also taken several long steps back toward authoritarianism under Mr. Putin, who has served as prime minister or president since 1999 and has frequently expressed admiration for aspects of the Soviet system.
Mr. Kozhin said the biggest obstacle to burying Lenin is his remaining adherents in the Communist Party, which came second to Mr. Putin and his United Russia party in recent elections. (Lenin’s Tomb saw 1.5 million visitors last year, with the lineup usually an even mix of white-haired Communists and foreign tourists.)
“It should be decided when two-thirds of the country will accept it quietly and not go into the streets,” Mr. Kozhin said. Such a political calculation likely means it won’t happen immediately, with the country already experiencing the largest anti-government street demonstrations since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But Mr. Kozhin said it was quite possible within Mr. Putin’s coming six-year term in the presidency.
The timing, Mr. Kozhin said, will be dictated by a harsh collision of politics and demographics that could occur in the next two or three years. “Unfortunately, this older generation for whom [the mausoleum]is a sacred place are leaving us rather fast.”
That means the clock is ticking toward the day Lenin will finally be granted his own wish to be buried alongside his mother’s grave in St. Petersburg. A poll of Internet users conducted last year by United Russia drew more than 345,000 responses and found 67-per-cent support for the idea of removing Lenin from Red Square and burying him in the earth.
Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, raised the idea as far back as 1999, declaring that it was “neither humane nor Christian to display in public the body of someone who died a long time ago.” But Mr. Yeltsin quickly backed down following an outcry from Communist loyalists.
Lenin’s lingering personality cult in Russia goes well beyond the crypt on Red Square. While monuments of other Soviet leaders are hard to find, massive statues of Lenin still stand in the main squares of Moscow and other Russian cities, and the main street in nearly every town and village is named after him.
But the number of Russians who told pollsters that Lenin was history’s “most important world figure” fell to 34 per cent in 2010 from 72 per cent in 1990. Lenin briefly shared the Red Square tomb with his successor, Joseph Stalin, but Stalin’s body was removed from the crypt (and buried near the Kremlin wall alongside other Soviet “heroes”) in 1961 after the Soviet government acknowledged the mass murder that characterized his rule.
If Lenin’s body is buried in St. Petersburg, it would mean the end of a grisly yet remarkable 88-year upkeep project by a Moscow laboratory called Medical Biological Technologies. Created with Soviet government funds, it has fallen on hard times since the collapse of the Soviet Union and now relies on private donations.
Chief embalmer Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky claimed several years ago that Lenin’s body could be maintained for another 100 years using current methods, which include a restorative glycerol and potassium acetate bath once every 18 months, and touch-ups with a mild bleach in the interim. Mr. Denisov-Nikolsky’s boast may never be put to the test.
But just as one project may be ending, another looms. The Moscow scientists – who also care for the embalmed corpses of former North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung and former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh – have reportedly been contacted this year about a potential new client: the recently deceased Kim Jong-il.