20 January, 20:37

90 years after Lenin's death: Russia leaning on his state-building legacy

Crowds coming to the House of Trade Unions to pay their last respects to Lenin. A still from the movie "The Mournful January of 1924" showing the funeral of Lenin in Moscow in January 1924. From TV serial "Lenin: Pages from Life". Ekran production, 1987.

Crowds coming to the House of Trade Unions to pay their last respects to Lenin. A still from the movie "The Mournful January of 1924" showing the funeral of Lenin in Moscow in January 1924. From TV serial "Lenin: Pages from Life". Ekran production, 1987.

Crowds coming to the House of Trade Unions to pay their last respects to Lenin. A still from the movie "The Mournful January of 1924" showing the funeral of Lenin in Moscow in January 1924. From TV serial "Lenin: Pages from Life". Ekran production, 1987.

January 21st marks the 90th anniversary of the passing of Vladimir Lenin. He was of course the man who led the Russian revolution of 1917 and became the first leader of the Soviet Union. To look into the past and how it still impacts us today, VOR's Rustem Safronov spoke with Nina Tumarkin, a Professor of History and Director of Russian Area Studies at Harvard University.

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Tumarkin says that the Kremlin is leaning now on the primacy of the state as the core of Russia’s identity, a notion that corresponds with Lenin’s great achievement in holding Russia together and laying the groundwork for a stronger state. She goes on to say that the Mausoleum should not be removed, because it is such an important symbol of what Lenin and the nation achieved. 

Hello Nina. I am very glad to talk to you in that day so, since you are a big specialist in Russian history, political mythology, surrounding a lot of historial figures and political events in Russia. Today we are marking a very important anniversary, 90 years after Lenin’s death. Lenin was a creator of the Soviet state, the contemporary Russian Federation is inheriting a lot of features of the Soviet State in different ways. So how would we evaluate the Lenin’s legacy because I think all 20 th century was very much under banner of Lenin, all changes happened in the country so I think the impact of Lenin is way beyond just Russia. 

Absolutely, I mean he really was the author of Bolshevism, and in many ways the author of the Bolshevik revolution, which determined the major events of the arch of the 20 th century. So without Lenin there really would have not been not only a revolution but surely there surely would not have been so many of the other events of the 20 th century, WWI and WWII and the Cold War. In an odd way, I think perhaps for some Russians, Lenin is more hateful even than Stalin, that Stalin represents still the strength of the Soviet Union, the defeat of the Germans, which was the great dramatic and important successful event in the Soviet history. Whereas, Lenin was the man who betrayed the Great Russian Empire which was respected and enormous and powerful in the world and decided to try to create in reality a change in history that normally people would think could only happen organically, to set his will and break Russia’s historical past and take it over with a new system, with new values, with enormous dislocation and one that unleashed a history of decades of brutality. I think that the legacy of Lenin while on one hand we would say he was more significant, and he truly changed the world in ways that almost no one ever did in history before perhaps Martin Luther would come to mind among some other levels, perhaps Sigmund Freud, so in that sense I think it was more significant. But I think he was fundamentally more destructive because people, generally speaking, see the Soviet experiment as a failure and a tragedy nowadays. 

Are we talking about today or are we talking raising utopia? 

I think about today because we are not even in post-Soviet period, we are in the post, post Soviet period. I think very few people would argue that the Soviet experiment was a great idea. So people might have made the best of it. While Stalin was clearly much more brutal, we don’t know what Lenin would have become had he lived past the age of 53. 

So we see how ideal is the idea of the society without violence, this was Lenin’s proclamation, at least what he proclaimed. He did act in the severe circumstances of Civil War. 

Yes, but then he died. He only ruled the Soviet Russia and then the Soviet Union from the fall of 1917 until the end of 1922 and then the major stroke took him from power. He even lived on a little over a year after that. You can look at his writing and at his orders he would order people at rebellions to be crushed brutally and nearly the beginning of secret police... 

That actually didn’t shock me so much because Soviet people were grown up with the idea that was properly conducted and this is how you have to deal with enemies, I was more shocked when in 1989 they published documents about repressions against church. 

Lenin was a very brilliant politician, he was very successful, he was more successful as a head of state even than he was as a revolutionary. As a revolutionary, he had not been particularly courageous since he had made number of mistakes and made many enemies but he was a very successful and clever head of state. Of course, yes, what would shock somebody like you, who had been raised and brought up in the Soviet Union and in Russia was very different from what would shock, you talked about mankind, the general literate public. So I think that his legacy has been very, very negative although enormously significant. 

For a good Soviet citizen, for a loyal Soviet citizen, who believes in the ideas of Communism it was a normal way and very meaningful moment of life to make pilgrimage to the Lenin’s Mausoleum. 

Absolutely. 

And for a lot of people it is one of the most memorable events in their history.

Recently, Mr. Putin compared about a year ago, he compared it with the remains of saints in Orthodox Church, that people worship it. 

That’s absolutely true and I do know and I know it as a fact that for Boris Yeltsin burying Lenin was very important and he was not able to accomplish that. He was able to re-bury the remains of dynasty of Romanov family in 1998 but he was not able to bury Lenin. 

I guess about Romanov family it was something very personal for Mr. Yeltsin. Since his family was involved in blowing up the Ipatiev house where the last refuge of Tsar family in Sverdlovsk. He probably felt like he morally has to do something. 

That is absolutely correct but I also remember at the time Boris Nemtsov who is long now an opposition leader but had been one of the deputies under Yeltsin told me personally that burying Lenin was extremely important to Yeltsin. In any event, the Mausoleum the fact the monument is there means that in Russia his legacy will stay but it is fading to a certain extent and doesn’t have this sharp feeling like the legacy of Stalin does. 

Do you think that the debates about burying him are still important? 

I think they are very important. 

Why people are not fighting about other Mausoleums around the world that exist? 

There are not too many Mausoleums, there was Mao Zedong and that didn’t work very well. What the Russians have been doing is replacing Soviet history and other events from Russians past. We know that for Russia today it is very important for the Kremlin to articulate the national idea and to have its symbols and its historical ideas, and heroes. 

You will think Russia should look for inspiration somewhere else and not include Lenin among the creators of contemporary Russia? 

He has to be. You can’t just dismiss the architect of the entire Soviet system. 

It’s very difficult to understand right now what Russia should take from the past. Should it be contemporary regime with elements of quasi-Imperial features and elements of Soviet style, to come up with some holistic ideas. 

But the Kremlin does. And I think for Kremlin the essence of the Russian idea is what we call in Russian «государственность» and you can decide how to translate it.

Strong state kind of.

And the importance of the state and this is very Russian mythology and Russian ideas differ so fundamentally from Americans. If you ask even the very right wing patriotic American what is the essence of America, no one would ever say “government”, in fact they tend to be very much against their government, whereas in Russia there is kind a cult of the government itself, cult of the state itself and the admiration of it. And this is one of the ways that Stalin was brought to the force; Stalin was the embodiment of the very powerful state. And it is true that from very beginning from the foundation of Moscow, even before Peter the Great it was the Russian state itself was an enormously successful growing entity that imposed itself on the Russian land as it spread out. If you want to see the real legacy and the roots of the current Kremlin Russia’s national idea, take a look at Putin’s Millennium Message or Speech that he gave December, 30th, 1999 in which he talked about the essence of what he thought was the Russian idea. “Государственичество” (Strong state) was a very important part of that idea. Lenin represented that, he wanted to create that state, that was very powerful.

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