It was quite an early start this morning because our first visit of the day was to the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square and we were warned that there was a strong possibility of long queues.
Since Perestroika fewer Russian people visit the permanently preserved body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lying in State in his glass coffin but there are still large visitor numbers every day which are swollen by several dozen coach loads of tourists because this is now a top Moscow visitor attraction.
It is only open for four days a week and the opening hours are short so if you get there too late then it is possible to line up for an hour or two and then reach the front of the queue only to coincide with closing time and be turned away so Galina was mindful of this when she hurried us from the coach and to the back of the queue lining up at the entrance to Red Square.
It wasn’t a long queue but the army guards on duty only allowed a few people through at a time and this was only to go through the first check point to get to a second three hundred metres in front. This meant that progress was tediously slow and it was about now that we discovered that Russian people are equally as bad as French or Greeks when it comes to line discipline and waiting times didn’t really matter to them so we had to be on our guard to make sure people didn’t push in.
Eventually it was our turn to go through the gate in the metal fence and we made our way to the more rigorous checkpoint at the entrance to the mausoleum gardens. Cameras and mobile phones are strictly forbidden because the authorities don’t want snapshots of Comrade Lenin turning up on the internet on WordPress Blogs or Trip Advisor reviews so they have to be left in a locker room and if anyone tries to defy this and is caught by the thorough security checks then there punishment is to be sent to the back of the queue!
Sticking to the rules we got through without incident and made our way through the gardens with their memorials and wall plaques commemorating the lives of previous Soviet leaders and heroes of the USSR and approached the mausoleum where there was a third and final check by army guards before being allowed to go through the entrance.
There was bright sunshine in Red Square but inside it was dark and gloomy so because of the contrast it took our eyes a while to adjust and this was rather dangerous because almost immediately we had to follow some black dogleg marble stairs down into the underground chamber where Lenin is lying in his glass tomb.
It is quite common of course for World leaders, heroes and famous people to lie in State in this way so that the public can pay their last respects but usually it is only for a few days or so until a proper funeral can be arranged but poor old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin has been on continuous display in this way for almost ninety years!
Exhibiting his body like this was totally against his wishes and those of his family but his successor Stalin overruled this and when he was satisfied that the preservation process had been successful arranged for him to go on permanent mawkish display with what I detected as “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here” sort of look on his troubled and chemically embalmed face.
Queuing up like this to spend a few seconds looking at a mummified corpse might seem like a strange thing to do but I was fascinated to be able to do this and to be able to see for myself one of the men who shaped the twentieth century and the cold war world of my childhood – a world of spies and espionage, nuclear weapons, underground fallout shelters for the great and the good and the constant nagging fear of Armageddon.
Of course I wanted to see him, I’d go and see the preserved body of Adolf Hitler if someone hadn’t poured petrol on it and set it alight!
When Lenin died in January 1924 he was acclaimed as ‘the greatest genius of mankind’ and ‘the leader and teacher of the peoples of the whole world’. Time Magazine named him one of the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century (Albert Einstein was first and Mahatma Ghandi and Theodore Roosevelt close runners up).
According to the article in Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘If the Bolshevik Revolution is, as some people have called it, the most significant political event of the twentieth century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader… he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx’.
Russia chooses to continue to remember Lenin in this way where elsewhere the legacy is being systematically dismantled. During the Soviet period, many statues of Lenin were erected across Eastern Europe but many of these have subsequently been removed. Russian lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) have agreed a proposal to remove all statues of Lenin from Russian cities, citing high maintenance costs and vandalism concerns as some of the main reasons. The proposal is being strongly opposed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
Many places and entities were named in honour of Lenin. The city of Saint Petersburg, the site where both February and October revolutions started, was renamed Leningrad in 1924, four days after Lenin’s death but in 1991 after a contested vote between Communists and liberals, the Leningrad government reverted the city’s name to Saint Petersburg.
For a man responsible for the revolution and its legacy and the bloody elimination of the Romanovs he looked paradoxically rather gentle lying there with outstretched arms, one clenched in continuous communist defiance, in his black suit and favourite white spotted tie, his carefully groomed ginger beard and a slightly yellowing skin.
The body is removed every few months for running repairs, the application of more preservation chemicals and to be fitted up in a new suit. There are rumours, stridently denied by the authorities, that this isn’t the body of Lenin at all and that the preservation process owes more to the technicians at Madame Tussauds than the skill of the laboratory embalmers but it would be impossible to do a detailed investigation or stop for a while and look for waxy evidence because if anyone pauses for even a moment there is a guard in the room who immediately instructs them to move on and this means that time in the chamber is no longer than a few seconds before ascending the stairs on the opposite side and emerging blinking back into the sunlight.
We left the mausoleum gardens and went back into Red Square and went to get our cameras. This meant going back out of the security fencing and once I had retrieved our property was refused entry back inside without going through the queuing up and security process all over again all of which seemed a bit unnecessary but appeared rather dangerous to argue with the armed guards and thankfully it didn’t take too long.