IDEAS

Dismantling Lenin

The Soviets respond to grassroots discontent

MALCOLM GRAY October 15 1990
IDEAS

Dismantling Lenin

The Soviets respond to grassroots discontent

MALCOLM GRAY October 15 1990

Dismantling Lenin

IDEAS

The Soviets respond to grassroots discontent

Until recently, the goateed profile of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a familiar and sacrosanct image in the Soviet Union. Prominently featured on ru-

ble banknotes and rendered in massive statues across the country, Lenin’s enduring and pervasive presence symbolized the Communist party’s iron grip on the Soviet Union. Now, however, local governments throughout the nation are responding to grassroots discontent with communism’s economic failures, and resurgent nationalism in the 15 Soviet republics, by dismantling dozens of statues of Lenin. Staunch Communists have rallied to defend the monuments while shifting the blame for current anti-Lenin feelings to the Soviet Union’s favorite bogeyman: Josef Stalin. Said Leonid Dovshokolob, a specialist in ideology with the Soviet party’s Central Committee in Moscow: “Thanks to Stalin, Lenin became an idol for millions, although Lenin himself was categorically against any cult of personality.” According to Dovshokolob, Stalin began erecting statues of Lenin, contrary to the wishes of the former leader’s widow, shortly after gaining control of the Communist party in the early 1930s. The practice continued unabated under successive Soviet leaders until

Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985. Dovshokolob describes the official idolization of Lenin as a display of paganism, but party loyalists in several regions of the country, such as the Ukrainian district of Khmelnitisk, have formed groups to protect local statues of Lenin.

At the same time, a lively debate has begun over the cultural significance of the monuments. Declared drama critic Alexander Svodin in a recent issue of the Moscow weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta: “The thousands upon thousands of full-size statues and busts, made by greedy hacks of socialist realism, have nothing to do with art.”

Certainly, factories and workshops producing Lenin memorabilia have experienced a marked drop in business in recent years. Even though images of Lenin are still prevalent in government, military and police offices, Moscow’s Mutishinskaya factory reported revenues of only R30,000, or $61,225, in 1989 from the sale of Lenin busts. Factory officials say they hope to develop a new market among tourists for gypsum busts that range in size from a 2V2-foot-high model costing R10.40, or $21, retail to a deluxe, ôVfe-foot replica on a marble pedestal for R1.314, or $2,680.

That marketing trend is clearly visible on

Moscow’s lively Arbat Street. There, on a pedestrian walk that is lined with artsand-crafts stalls, vendors sell enamelled badges bearing Lenin’s bust for as much as 10 rubles, or $20, each. State stores sell the same badges at much lower prices, but tourists are buying from the vendors anyway. Robert Symon, a Los Angeles restaurateur who was visiting Moscow in late September, bought a dozen from an Arbat Street booth. Said Symon: “I wanted souvenirs of a Communist country, and who knows how long that will be the case here?”

In any event, one of the principal founders of Soviet communism seems destined to have a lower public profile throughout the Soviet Union.

From Tbilisi, the capital of

Georgia, to cities throughout Ukraine and the Baltic states,

local governments have yielded to nationalist fervor and dismantled the statues. Even in the country’s two largest cities, Leningrad and Moscow, the radical reformers who dominate municipal councils are attacking the memory of Lenin. Last spring, reformers in Leningrad even proposed restoring one of the city’s former names—St. Petersburg or Petersburgh. But that plan has been shelved for the moment. According to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the city will continue to bear Lenin’s name because he represented an important period in history.

And in Moscow, a revisionist council is considering removing Lenin’s name from such institutions as the city’s 103,000-seat sports stadium and its famed subway system. Indeed, a niche in the council chamber that once displayed a bust of Lenin now holds the flags of the Soviet Union and the Russian Republic. Said Konstantin Ivanov, a member of the city’s monument preservation committee: “Two months ago, during the council’s first session, two daredevils unexpectedly climbed up on stage and overturned the bust. Someone righted it, but the next day the bust was missing and we decided to place flags there.”

In Red Square, at least, Lenin’s tomb still draws large crowds, although many sophisticated Muscovites claim that they have never visited the mausoleum. And in the line snaking across the square last week, many out-of-town visitors said that they came simply because the tomb is on the tourist circuit. Said one irreverent visitor from the Armenian capital of Yerevan—who cautiously requested anonymity: “It is our version of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.” Certainly, with the hostile currents now swirling around his many monuments, Lenin’s remains underline his current standing: embalmed and remote from contemporary Soviet society.

MALCOLM GRAY

in Moscow