Although his heart stopped ninety years ago, Lenin still resonates in the Russian Federation. He 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.
70 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 east into Siberia, Lenin becomes bigger and more ubiquitous. The most remote, crumbling hamlets with no electricity and only two streets still have a street named after Lenin. I have seen his name nailed to collapsed wooden shacks in Buryatia and precariously balanced piles of bricks by Baikal. Wherever there live Russians there lives Lenin.
Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia beside Lake Baikal boasts the biggest Lenin cranium on the planet. It looks more like Genghis Khan and this is no coincidence. The head was apparently placed there as punishment for Buryat resistance to the Bolsheviks. The local craftsmen had the last laugh by giving him Asian eyes. They colonised the great 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 utterly impossible 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 the Nazis. No half century of Communist-Capitalist Cold War.
Although no one misses the cruel realities of the Soviet Union, people do miss the ideological sheen. They miss having something to believe in. Now there is nothing but bling and greed and cynical repression.
In the summer I found myself in a bank in Yekaterinburg indulging in one of the staples of Russian life- queuing. At first you despise spending hours queuing for the most basic services, then you learn to laugh, then finally you cease to feel anything at all. I reached that final stage long ago, so now whilst I queue I cease to exist. But in this bank my brain was dragged back into existence by the most curious sight. 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 explain the grand draw which nobody could enter. The three ladies became increasingly disgruntled, growling and tugging their grimy 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… SSSHUGAR!”
It’s easy to see why they were angry about this shiny peacock forcing their exclusion down their throats. I felt like throttling him myself. Their anger at their exclusion from the grand draw reflects the anger people feel at their exclusion from politics, and to come back 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.”