On his 136th birthday, Lenin still haunts a nation

You'd think he has no place in Russia today. But on his 136th birthday, the great Bolshevik still haunts a nation. Sarah Fishburn Roberts asks why
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The Independent Online

He's everywhere. Travel the length and breadth of Russia and he'll be your constant companion. The pointed chin is ill disguised by a trademark goatee, his clipped moustache and piercing eyes speak of scholarly austerity and implacable determination. Rarely will he look you in the eye. He prefers the vast expanses of the future, which he surveys endlessly with an expression of noble absorption. Occasionally, he cannot help but fling his right arm outwards in a gesture of visionary yearning.

This is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a man from the nondescript town of Simbirsk (now Ul'yanovsk), in south-west Russia, whose 136th birthday is celebrated later this month. Mr Ulyanov is known more commonly as Lenin, Bolshevik revolutionary and leader of the Soviet state from 1917 to his death in 1924. It's not the man himself who is present in these photographs, of course, but some of the hundreds of statues that stand doggedly in the main squares of so many Russian towns.

Compared with the struggles of the mid-1990s, when the corruption and economic hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union threatened to prompt a Communist revival, Russia's future is looking a little healthier. Only the old and disenchanted hark back to the days of Stalinism and their perceived stability. In this emerging Russia, where Western advertising hoardings promote mobile phones and white goods, and Ladas jostle for space alongside German and Japanese imports, Lenin statues are both incongruous and commonplace. He's become something of a king of kitsch, his gnome-like countenance emblazoned on scarlet T-shirts or painted on wooden matryoshkas, the novelty nesting dolls that pull apart to reveal a row of sorry-looking former Soviet leaders. f

In St Petersburg, a restaurant called Lenin's Mating Call invites its customers to dine among legions of silver Lenin busts, while footage of the man himself making impassioned speeches to the masses plays on elevated screens. Interestingly, the passionate speech-making is punctuated by passion of a different kind, as 1970s pornography is interspersed with manifestos.

Anyway, how does one account for the anachronistic presence of the hoards of Lenin statues that, it appears, no one is in any great hurry to remove? Their longevity is impressive because, by all accounts, he cut a singularly unprepossessing figure in the flesh. Stalin, meeting his hero for the first time, commented disappointedly that, "I was looking to see the mountain eagle of our fatherland, a great man; great not only in the political sense, but physically: a tall, big man; for in my youthful enthusiasm I imagined him a giant, a man of martial bearing. I saw a most ordinary-looking person, rather shorter than myself - and I am only of medium stature - a man absolutely indistinguishable in any respect whatsoever from the ordinary run of mortals."

Perhaps the statues possess inherent artistic merit. Certainly, they are more diverse than one might imagine. Lenin comes in a range of hues: grey granite, a chilly marble, bronze, occasionally a surprising and frivolous silver. And in a range of personas: the contemplative intellectual, the energetic motivator, alternately a great statesman, implausibly tall and grand, then a humble proletariat, cap in hand, wearing and re-wearing his greatcoat with admirable thriftiness. He appears as a camp cabaret star more often than one would suppose, limp-wristed and fey, the merest hint of a spring in his step. This inference, one presumes, was unintentional on the part of the sculptor.

Many ordinary Russians, unwilling to relinquish the Utopian ideal of Communism, argue that Lenin set Russia on the right path, but that Stalin came along and botched it up by being despotic and vicious. Lenin, in effect, retains some credibility as the respectable face of Communism. Among historians, however, this theory has long since lost integrity. The New Yorker's David Remnick observed strenuously that, "it was Lenin who built the first camps; Lenin who set off artificial famine as a political weapon; Lenin who disbanded the last vestige of democratic government, the Constituent Assembly, and devised the Communist Party as the apex of a totalitarian structure; Lenin who first waged war on the intelligentsia and on religious believers, wiping out any traces of civil liberty and a free press." In short, Lenin believed in authoritarianism as the means of achieving his socialist ends and this was often accompanied by merciless bloodletting.

In case these tendencies were in any doubt, an oft-quoted letter, penned in 1918, reveals a pitiless operator. "Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak volosts [farming districts] must be suppressed without mercy! We need to set an example. 1) You need to hang, so the public sees, at least 100 notorious kulaks, 2) publish their names, 3) take away all their grain, 4) execute hostages ... This needs to be accomplished in such a way that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble and scream out; let's choke and strangle those blood-sucking kulaks. Yours, Lenin. P.S. Use your toughest people for this."

As Lenin himself mused, "what is to be done?" Should he be toppled from his plinths or merely regarded with indifference? The endless paved concourses that usually spread out beneath his feet are used these days as parade grounds for the 9 May Victory Day celebrations, or as convenient skate parks for young boarders. Depending on your point of view, the statues are either sad relics of a redundant era or mildly entertaining examples of Soviet kitsch. But don't look too hard for a profound ideological reason why these Lenins aren't being busily carted off. "The statues are very heavy," said one Russian solemnly, by way of explanation, "and therefore expensive to move. Then, where would we put the abandoned Lenins? More importantly, we'd be left with hundreds of empty plinths. Who could we place on these vacant pedestals?" Evidently, there always has to be somebody on a pedestal in Russia. Statue of Vladimir Putin, anyone?

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