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Tampering with historical memory in Russia has always been a dangerous pastime. So when newly installed Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky proposed to finally bury Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body and rename Moscow’s streets to honor Tsarist rather than Soviet figures, his comments naturally caused a stir. But they also highlight just how touchy even the recent past can be in a divisive and historically damaged Russia – especially when historical memory is mobilized for political purposes.
To bury or not to bury Lenin? It’s a question that has arisen time and again since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the better part of the Soviet elite traded its crimson lapel pins and Communist Party memberships for European-tailored suits and business cards. Each post-Soviet leader has shied away from making a final call on the issue, for fear of either discouraging his constituency or even sparking serious societal unrest. And no matter how one approaches it, the situation seems impossible: leave Lenin, and you anger the progressive urbanites; bury him, and you anger the Kremlin’s most loyal support base. Nearly 50 percent of Russians, according to a recent Levada Center poll, still think the Bolshevik played a positive role in Russian history.
Which is why Medinsky’s comments were only bound to provoke a flurry of discussion. His proposals to not only kick Lenin out of his imposing stone mausoleum, but also to rename a handful of the capital’s streets to honor members of the last Tsarist family, led both critics and supporters of the initiative to speak out. Medinsky, for his part, justified his idea by pitching it as a stepping stone of sorts: “Maybe, indeed, many things in our life would symbolically change for the better after this,” he said in an interview with the Echo of Moscow radio station last week.
Perhaps to Medinsky’s credit, his intentions seem targeted toward overcoming Russia’s troublesome past and finally coming to terms with what both avowed communists and ordinary pensioners today still seem to prefer not to remember: that the Soviet regime, and Lenin in particular, were murderous and power-hungry. For instance, Medinsky proposed renaming a Moscow metro station currently named after Pyotr Voikov, a Soviet revolutionary who participated in the 1918 execution of the royal family. He also suggested turning Lenin’s mausoleum into a museum that would charge expensive entrance fees.
Some, however, see ulterior motives. Observers point to the convenient timing against the backdrop of growing social and political unrest. “Forcing a debate on Lenin's corpse is one of those ‘cards’ – designed to both split the opposition (many of whom are communists), and spark a national debate on what is an essentially meaningless topic in contemporary Russian politics,” Russian columnist Andrew Ryvkin wrote in The Guardian on June 15. He added: “The debate around Lenin's interment…at a time of political turmoil and ongoing protests is designed to distract the Russian public.”
Regardless of the motives, history remains a touchy subject in a Russia endowed with memories of both glory and suffering, of inspiration and humiliation. For example, when first Russian President Boris Yeltsin attempted to bury Lenin, it went nowhere: his proposal never made it past rhetoric because he faced a formidable electoral challenge from the communists and their supporters in the 1990s amidst his own democratic failings. His successor, once and current President Vladimir Putin, has similarly only lightly brushed the topic, but has instead invoked a mix of Soviet and Imperial Russian symbolism in a bid to garner broad popular support and to justify his rule.
Experts said history is particularly meaningful for Russians because it remains, in a way, more certain than both the present and the future. What’s more, according to noted sociologist Alexei Levenson, a senior researcher at the Levada Center, the Soviet collapse presented Russians with the opportunity to finally study and advocate their own takes on history – a freedom which still deeply affects society. “Now you can present Tsarist history, Soviet history, or democratic history, and nobody can prevent you from doing that,” he said. “But there is a kind of competition among the different pictures of the past.”
He added, however, that this competition has been hijacked by the Kremlin in its own attempts to present history. The appointment of Medinsky, who remains controversial for his own questionable, Kremlin-friendly research and general whitewashing over Russian history, is a prime example. Before the Lenin affair, his was the latest scandal that had urban intellectuals up in arms. The extent to which the authorities have used history, Levenson said, has made people “sick and tired of the symbolic or pseudo-symbolic actions” that achieve very little. “The confrontation over this issue is what really matters, because everyone understands whom you are insulting when you take Lenin out, and who will be okay with it,” he said. “This is a purely political subject.”
Still, some observers hope Medinsky’s suggestion might help to finally push Russians beyond the past. Writing for Echo of Moscow, journalist and author Andrei Yegorov took Medinsky’s proposal at face value – though he expressed a dose of skepticism that Medinsky’s efforts would differ from anyone else’s prior attempts. “As long as we live in a capital whose streets are named after suicide bombers and murderers of the royal family, the new Russia cannot tread through the bloody dust of the 20th century,” he wrote. “Except I’m afraid that words will remain words and that we'll keep walking through the streets of murderers and terrorists. I hope Medinsky will stand by his words – we’ll see what they are worth.”
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