Lenin's Legacy- Ukraine, Russia, Siberia

Article published on Jan. 9, 2014
Article published on Jan. 9, 2014

Dur­ing anti-gov­ern­ment demonstrations in De­cem­ber 2013, pro­tes­tors in Kiev top­pled a statue of Lenin and attacked it with ham­mers. In Kharkhiv, pro­tes­tors have pro­posed eras­ing Lenin’s legacy by re­nam­ing Lenin Street, 'Lennon Street'. But al­though his heart stopped ninety years ago, Lenin still res­onates in the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion

In Rus­sia Lenin is every­where. His legacy lives on in the lessons in po­lit­i­cal kitsch served up by Putin’s per­son­al­ity cult. His legacy lives on in the sac­ri­fice of civil lib­er­ties for the progress of the state. He lives on in colos­sal con­crete repli­cas in al­most every town square, in a street name in every c­ity, in gift shops on every street. Most per­versely, he 'lives' on in a par­ody of life, sus­pended in a box in front of the Krem­lin. Patched up and per­haps more wax than flesh, the end­less re­pairs on his corpse are tes­ta­ment to Rus­sia’s re­fusal to let Lenin die.

Sev­enty years ago, dur­ing World War Two, Lenin’s corpse set out on the Trans-Siber­ian rail­way. He was flee­ing the very same Ger­mans who gave him safe pas­sage to Rus­sia in 1917 in the hope that he would de­rail Rus­sia’s war ef­fort with a rev­o­lu­tion. So whilst he served the Ger­man cause in World War One, he spent World War Two hid­ing from them in the Agri­cul­tural Acad­emy in Tyu­men.

As you travel fur­ther east into Siberia, Lenin be­comes big­ger and strangely more ubiq­ui­tous. The most re­mote, crum­bling ham­lets with no tar­mac and a hand­ful of houses still nearly al­ways have a street named after Lenin. You see 'Lenin Street' nailed to col­lapsed wooden shacks in Bury­a­tia and pre­car­i­ously bal­anced piles of bricks by Baikal.

Ulan-Ude, the cap­i­tal of Bury­a­tia be­side Lake Baikal boasts the biggest Lenin cra­nium on the planet. The head was ap­par­ently placed there as pun­ish­ment for Buryat re­sis­tance to the Bol­she­viks. Local crafts­men al­legedly had the last laugh by sculpt­ing his fea­tures with an East­ern vibe. They colonised the Com­mu­nist con­queror.

How­ever huge, no recre­ation of Lenin’s cra­nium can do jus­tice to the scale of the im­pact he had on our planet. It is hard to imag­ine how the world would look if Lenin hadn’t been there to lead the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion. No cen­tury of Com­mu­nism. No vic­tory over Nazi Ger­many. No half cen­tury of Com­mu­nist-Cap­i­tal­ist Cold War.

Al­though no one misses the cruel re­al­i­ties of the So­viet Union, some peo­ple seem­ingly miss the ide­o­log­i­cal sheen. Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin him­self de­clared the col­lapse of the So­viet Union the ‘great­est geopo­lit­i­cal tragedy’ of the 20th cen­tury. Some­times it seems peo­ple miss hav­ing some­thing to be­lieve in. Human mem­ory is se­lec­tive and we have an im­pres­sive abil­ity to el­e­vate the pos­i­tive and sup­press past prob­lems.

In a bank in Yeka­ter­in­burg I wit­nessed a dra­matic dis­play of this nos­tal­gia for so­cial­ist ide­ol­ogy past and the re­sent­ment of so­cial frag­men­ta­tion pre­sent. A man was minc­ing around in a sparkling sil­ver suit. The seams were lined with fake di­a­monds and his tie was en­crusted with se­quins. Re­splen­dent in his liv­ery he oozed every­thing but class. He strut­ted up and down like a space age pea­cock.

He picked up a mi­cro­phone, a pho­tog­ra­pher moved in, and with a grandiose flour­ish the pea­cock re­vealed a huge lucky dip from un­der­neath a sheet. He an­nounced the grand-draw to the be­mused cus­tomers- three crusty old ladies in grubby coats (and me). In melo­dra­matic tones he de­clared the grand draw open to all cus­tomers with a loan of over 500,000 rou­bles (£10,000). This cer­tainly ap­plied to no­body pre­sent.

The pea­cock con­tin­ued to strut and elu­ci­date this grand draw which no­body could enter. The three old ladies be­came in­creas­ingly dis­grun­tled, growl­ing and tug­ging their thread­bare coats in dis­gust. Even­tu­ally one of them ex­ploded with rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vour, ‘In the So­viet Union every­body could enter the grand draw! Every­body! 500,000 rou­bles… What the hell is this! SSSHUGAR!’

It’s easy to see why they were angry about this shiny pea­cock forc­ing their ex­clu­sion down their throats. Their anger at their ex­clu­sion from the grand draw re­flects the anger large swathes of the pop­u­la­tion feel at their ex­clu­sion from pol­i­tics. To re­turn to the meme of an eter­nal Lenin, his words in 1917 still ring true in Rus­sia today, ‘The op­pressed are al­lowed once every few years to de­cide which par­tic­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the op­press­ing class are to rep­re­sent and re­press them in par­lia­ment.’