The mummified body of Soviet founding father Vladimir Lenin, preserved under glass in a black granite mausoleum on Red Square since his death in 1924, was the holiest shrine in the former USSR, a place of pilgrimage for thousands every day. It remains one of downtown Moscow's most popular tourist attractions.
But now a leading member of the ruling United Russia party, Vladimir Medinsky, says it's time to remove the Bolshevik icon from his highly symbolic perch beneath the Kremlin wall and, at long last, bury him.
Last week Mr. Medinsky launched an online survey on an official United Russia website, asking Russians if they agreed (the URL is www.goodbyelenin.ru). Of more than 300,000 Russians who voted, 69 percent agreed that it's time to bury Lenin.
Though the poll is hardly scientific, the results seem likely to bolster Medinsky's case that removing Lenin from the mausoleum and interring him with his mother in St. Petersburg – as was his wish – is finally politically feasible after two decades of raging controversy.
"Lenin is a very controversial figure and his role as the focus of a necropolis at the heart of our country is absurd," Medinsky said. "[The communists] wanted to create a substitute religion based on Lenin's cult, but they failed. It's time to finish with this."
Gorbachev, others caution
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the dismantling of the USSR, urged caution. "I think that we will come to this point at some stage," Mr. Gorbachev told the independent Interfax news agency last week. "But I do not think that we should be forcing things."
And Fyodor Suvorov, head of a large and highly active Communist Party chapter in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, said he was deeply outraged at the proposal in a telephone interview Friday.
"I feel indignant, to the depths of my soul," Mr. Suvorov says. "The people who are proposing this want to erase our history. It seems that Lenin, even dead, is still a bone in their throats. After all, he led a state that was by and for the people, whereas today everything is for sale. They want to destroy not only Lenin's body, but his memory as well."
Russian communists, who maintain a vast unofficial website devoted to Lenin's mausoleum in Russian and English, have launched their own online poll, which offers voters several more colorful options than just "yes" or "no," including "bury all democrats," "imprison tomb-raiders," and "leave Lenin and his mausoleum in peace."
Putin opposed removing Lenin
Former President Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of post-Soviet Russia, vowed in the 1990s to evict Lenin from his Red Square tomb, but was stymied by the still-powerful Communist Party and millions of older Russians who still revered Lenin.
His successor, Vladimir Putin, removed the question from the agenda entirely. That gave Lenin, and the huge Kremlin apparatus that keeps his embalmed remains looking "healthy," at least another decade's tenure on Red Square.
But public opinion has changed since then, as shown in a January poll from the independent Levada Center in Moscow. In 1997, according to the poll, 37 percent of Russians thought Lenin should be removed from the mausoleum while 38 percent wanted him to remain. This month, 40 percent supported his removal, while 31 percent wanted him to stay.
A third option, to bury Lenin in the Kremlin wall – a place of great political honor – has picked up a bit of support. Fourteen years ago, the poll found that 13 percent favored that idea; today, 16 percent say it would be best.
Political point scoring?
The decision by Medinsky, a Duma deputy with the party Prime Minister Putin leads, to revive the issue has caught some experts by surprise.
"I wonder if it isn't just a trial balloon by some United Russia functionaries who are a bit scared of their party's electoral prospects and are looking for an issue to raise their popularity," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the independent Center of Political Assessments in Moscow.
Regional elections will be held around Russia this spring, followed by Duma polls in December.
"The idea of burying Lenin is simply not a burning issue these days," Mr. Mikheyev says. "People who are nostalgic for the Soviet past remain solidly against it, while people who support the idea, such as myself, just don't think it's worth arguing about right now."