Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body has been on display in Moscow’s Red Square since 1924. Today, momentum is building to finally bury the man-god of Soviet Russia in a plot of common ground. Russia’s leading political party even hosted an online poll recently allowing Russians to vote on the idea. About two-thirds backed it.
Burying Lenin would be terribly dishonest. It would risk erasing the brutally violent communist legacy he spawned. His strain of socialism bankrupted Russia morally and economically, leaving it in many respects a third-world country – even today. It saddled the Soviet Union with an economy designed in the 1920s, symbolized by a hammer and sickle, trying to compete in the age of the microchip.
The Leninist promise of a new international world order became a stratagem as well as a devious excuse for restoration of the old Russian imperial empire. Lenin’s new communist world order promised to abolish colonialism and imperialism but it perpetuated both shamefully, enslaving millions beyond Russia’s borders.
It may be the Russian tradition “not to take your garbage outside the hut,” as one peasant proverb says, but it is important for present and future generations of Russians to understand that mere mortals never become gods. The Roman emperors never pulled it off; neither could Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong.
Reminders of dangerous personality cult
When new nationalist saviors like current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appear on stage, flaunting the same arrogance Lenin practiced with his messianic vision, Russians ought to be able to look at Lenin’s tomb for a chilling reminder that rigid, intolerant ideologies are usually flawed and destructive beyond imagining.
The cult of personality that Lenin and his heirs promoted led to gulags, mass famine, genocide, and other unspeakable evils. Russians need visible symbols like that granite mausoleum in Red Square to remind all of us of the crimes committed by leaders who are certain that there is but one true vision – theirs.
Learn history's lessons
History can be swept under the rug temporarily but it doesn’t stay there forever. Only recently did historians learn that Mao Zedong killed 45 million Chinese in a forced famine in the four years between 1958 and 1962.
Modern societies, if they are to remain civilized and cultured, require healthy doses of introspection, self-criticism, and atonement to prevent backsliding into medieval darkness and savagery.
Why Westerners have a say
The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin is credited with having said, “If you want to hear something stupid, ask a foreigner what he thinks of Russia.” Perhaps, but the Soviet Union was also my home for five years and Lenin and his heirs shaped so much of the 20th century beyond Russia’s borders that today non-Russians have a right and an obligation to weigh in on Lenin’s legacy.
To Westerners who witnessed the Soviet Union’s sunset years, there was little illusion but that Lenin’s legacy was intellectually thin and tattered. My former colleague Andy Rosenthal used to jokingly call him “Dead Fred the Head Red.” This was heresy and sacrilege to generations of Soviet citizens. But it was a welcome alternative to obsequious verses like this from Russian poet Demian Bednyi, “Lenin! O Lenin! Your immutable fate has shown the world a resplendent path.”
As this year’s online poll shows, Russians appear to be gaining some healthy skepticism about Lenin. As recently as 2004, a survey showed that 63 percent of Russians had a positive view of Lenin’s role in history – though younger respondents had a much lower impression. Most young Russians I meet in the US today are indifferent to Lenin’s legacy. But therein lies the rub, for those who forget the past are often condemned to repeat it.
Condemned to repeat it?
So much of Lenin’s Soviet Union was a bald fabrication, and hundreds of millions of Russians dutifully lived the lies. It was a terrible betrayal of the Russian people who were themselves complicit.
Ivan Turgenev once wrote, “Russians are incorrigible liars, but there is nothing they like more than someone who will tell them the truth.”
Societies are corrupted by the lies their leaders tell. The greater the untruth, the more corrupt the society becomes. But nations cannot airbrush their history. Interring Lenin beside his mother in St. Petersburg may paper over, but will not expunge, the bloody Bolshevik past. Shakespeare reminds us that “the evil men do lives after them.” Modern Russia would dishonor communism’s victims if Lenin’s corpse is smuggled out of town on a moonless night.
Speaking about Lenin’s impact on Russians, Winston Churchill put it best: “Their worst misfortune was his birth ... their next worst – his death.”
Russia must still have its reckoning, not a confession or a mea culpa, but an honest educational curriculum in schools that teaches students how Lenin seduced their great-grandparents into serving a totalitarian state. The Germans came to terms with history after World War II, and are the richer because of it. Younger Russians today deserve no less than the same truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.