Slipping and cursing on the smoothly-iced cobbles of Red Square, we pulled up at the entrance to Lenin’s mausoleum. The guard held up his hand and solemnly shook his head.
‘Nyet’, he said. ‘Closed’.
‘Please’, we begged. ‘Just let us in’. Tantalisingly, we watched the last of the day’s visitors emerging from the other side of the mausoleum.
He shook his head again and pointed to his watch. It was a couple of minutes past 1.00 pm, the closing time. In our meticulous planning for this visit, we had of course not checked the opening and closing times for the mausoleum.
In fact, the reason we were at Red Square at all was that we had a few hours in between trains. One train had brought us from Tallinn in the morning, and the Trans-Siberian was due to leave in the evening. What should we do? Let’s visit Red Square!
We plunged underground in order to find the metro. After careening around the Moscow system in those thundering metro cars that hail from Soviet times, we finally emerged with ringing ears just outside Red Square. Soon the ringing stopped, for our ears began to freeze after a few minutes in the open air. It was a brisk minus 25 degrees – a relatively mild day for a Moscow winter. Yet our ears were the least of our worries. Not only was there an endless expanse of glassy iced cobbles spread out before us, but they led upwards, gradually and relentlessly to the square itself. Even the smallest dolly-steps were not enough to stop our feet from sliding this way and that, throwing us constantly off-balance.
Finally, Red Square lay before us. Brightly coloured copulas sat atop cathedrals and chapels, red-bricked imperial buildings spread to the right, and the orange-red wall of the Kremlin ran along its left side. Half-way down the wall we spied the low structure of mausoleum. We skidded our way closer, at painstakingly slow pace. But it did allow us to study the mausoleum from its different angles. One reads that all of the soviet republics contributed to its structure: from Ukraine came the Labradorite with blue sparkles (the “cornflower”), along with red granite and grey granite; from Belarus came the high quality granite from Drozdy village near Minsk; from Armenia came black stone with golden threads; from Tajikistan came granite, from the same ancient opencast mine in the mountains of Khovaling, that Alexander the Great – or so the legend goes – used to construct his stronghold there; from the one of a kind Shoksha mine on the shores of Lake Onega in Karelia was drawn the crimson-colored quartzite used for the pilaster of the Funeral Hall, for the upper crowning slab of the mausoleum, and the letters LENIN that call viewers from afar. All this careful detail was the result of the work of Aleksei Shchusev, the designer of the mausoleum. I am told that he had visited and studied many of the great tombs of past, especially those in the ancient Near East and of Greece and Rome. He sought nothing less than analogies with the whole history of architecture, settling on a simple step design that sought to express the idea that ‘Lenin is dead but his task [delo] keeps on living’ (as Abramov observes in Pravda i vymysly o kremlevskom nekropole i Mavzolee [The Truth and the Lies about the Kremlin Necropolis and the Mausoleum], 2005, p. 22). Of course, I read this material after our first attempt at a visit, but it made sense of our impression of the mausoleum. It manages the unique achievement of simple modernist design that at the same time fits entirely within the architecture of the square. It seems as though it had been there from eternity.
Alas, on this occasion were we to be denied the chance of seeing Lenin himself, or rather his preserved body. But it did mean we had plenty of time to study it from the outside.
Almost three years later we finally had our chance. In the early days of a mild September, we had travelled by the famous Soviet-era ‘Red Arrow’ (Кра́сная стрела́) overnight sleeper train from St. Petersburg. The train’s luxury makes one realise yet again that rail is a glorious way to travel.
Upon arrival in the morning, we made straight for Red Square, in a city that was by now a little more familiar – having learned Cyrillic and little Russian in the meantime certainly helped. Now we found the whole process of seeing Lenin somewhat more elaborate – apparently these measures are due to the increasing numbers who wish to see the man. The result is a subtle reshaping of the almost century-old ritual.
The ritual begins with waiting patiently in a bunched line. The line’s progress is held up by stern security guards, who allow a dozen or so through at a time. A bag drop-off follows, in the museum building some way to the right. Then it is a security scan, to ensure that no weapons, cameras, incendiary devices and other potentially destructive paraphernalia make it through. A walk of some fifty metres follows, passing along the Kremlin Wall and then behind the mausoleum. Lined up here are the tombs of those revolutionary leaders buried in the wall itself – such as Sverdlov, Inessa Irmand, Trotsky, who is next to Stalin. Of course, Stalin had for a time joined Lenin inside the mausoleum, but Khrushchev’s demonising of Stalin meant that he was removed and buried in the wall. Even so, he lies buried closest to the entry of the tomb. And here, every year on the day of his death, a large number of people gather to lay flowers at Stalin’s tomb.
Now one turns left and left again, around the mausoleum and to the entrance on the left-hand side. Steps lead down and a solemn guard points one left once more. A few more steps, a turn, and there is the glass-topped sarcophagus. Now you ascend a few stairs and look upon Lenin from a slight elevation. You can view him from all angles, coming quite close. As for me, I stood about two metres from him. I paused for a couple of minutes, studied him closely, let my thoughts run.
The leader of first successful communist revolution lies here, or rather his body does. He was also the first human being in history to be preserved intact, or at least in a presentable form. I noticed a slight scar on one eyelid, but otherwise he looked rather well – given that he had been asleep here for almost 90 years. His right hand was clenched, his left hand spread out. His goatee beard and moustache were neatly trimmed, his lips full, his slightly Asiatic eyes closed. He was known for his short next and his stocky, athletic stature, given his love of swimming, hiking, cycling, and ice-skating. Not that he had done much of that of late.
Eventually we said farewell and walked away slowly, quite moved by the simplicity – as were the others who had visited with us.
On the metro, I pondered the process by which he had been preserved. It is well known that the veneration of Lenin began soon after the two assassination attempts in January and August 1918. It is equally well known that he was not impressed. Upon recovery, he ordered that the growing veneration should stop. And he began to be more low-key in his public appearances, in an attempt to forestall what he saw as worship of an individual. It was to no avail, for popular veneration would not be contained.
Upon Lenin’s death in the bitter winter of 1924, the initial plan involved burial after an elaborate funeral. But as millions still wanted to see him one last time, the government established a small committee to oversee a slightly longer preservation. Now even more people were coming, and folk-tales and stories began blossoming – all about Lenin. He was not dead, said one folk-tale, but merely sleeping. He continued to roam the earth watching over the socialist cause. Or he had arranged to fake his own death, in order to see how the new communist government would fare without him. Each night he visited a different place: workers in an engine factory, meetings of the government, a peasant household. In each case, he found communism growing, so he took a long rest. These and many more folk-tales kept appearing, produced by the creative imagination of the common people as they reworked traditional motifs into new stories. Rather than depending on Russian Orthodox traditions of the saint, prophet, and martyr (as some facile Western analysis might have it), they were parts of a growing alternative revolutionary tradition, of veneration for a revolutionary leader. Initially surprised, the government soon realised what was happening and followed suit. So there developed parallel and mutually influencing phenomena, namely, the official Agitprop of the government and the popular veneration.
I also thought about Lenin’s status in today’s Russia? Would anyone dare remove his body and bury him now? Yeltsin pondered it in the 1990s, but the resistance was so strong he dropped the idea. Now, some twenty years later, the communist party has become the main opposition to Putin’s oligarchs, so much so that protests usually brandish images and texts from Lenin. I guess Putin is keen to avoid any further spark that might result from interfering with Lenin. What intrigues me the most is the steadily increasing stream of those who come to pay their respects. The reasons may vary, whether out of curiosity, an alternative tourist option, or in recognition for what the man achieved and the symbol he has become. The indication is that he’ll be there in the mausoleum for a good while longer.