The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was one of the most destabilizing and catastrophic events of the 20th century. Almost overnight, a nation that had been on the edge for years finally toppled and the former Soviet states were left with the responsibility of picking up the pieces. Although the political situation in the Soviet Union had been precarious since Gorbachev’s attempt at reform, nobody could have predicted that the almost 70 year old state that had accomplished so much would actually disappear. The Soviet Union had successfully launched a Communist revolution. It had industrialized and urbanized an underdeveloped and agrarian country. This was the state that prided itself on defeating fascism and saving the world in World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and it was the state that believed itself to have stood up to Western aggression in the following years. Like the revolutionaries of 1917, the new government in Russia was faced with the challenge of how to deal with the symbols of the previous regime. Scholars have identified three categories for these old sites of memory. They are co-opted and glorified, contested, or disavowed by the new regime. What determines a site’s placement is its ability to be used for the purposes of the new government (Forest and Johnson, 525-526).
The idea of removing Soviet symbols was certainly considered. However, this was not ideal, as it not only erases history, but it is an admission of defeat. This action tells the people that everything they were taught, everything they knew to be true, was wrong and needed to be replaced. The other option was to maintain those old Soviet symbols and repurpose them for contemporary use. At the front of this dilemma was dealing with the symbols of the most important figure in Soviet history, Vladimir Lenin. While most monuments to other Soviet leaders were removed or destroyed, many statues of Lenin were retained. The decision to keep these statues stemmed from a desire to maintain continuity between the Soviet and modern eras. For almost 70 years, the Cult of Lenin was ubiquitous throughout Russia. Rather than erase the man who had become revered, the decision was made to repurpose his memory as a Russian, not Soviet, icon. Lenin worship survives into the modern day in this altered – and perhaps muted – form.
Following the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks embarked on a program to establish a new identity for their people. The plan was to create an entirely new society, totally separated from the tsarist past. Artistic expression was viewed by Soviet leaders to hold great power in transforming society. Film, traditional art, music, and literature were all repurposed and repackaged with the goal of creating the new “Soviet Man” (Moran, 593). The Soviet Man would exemplify Soviet ideals such as devotion to work, academic excellence, and athletic superiority. One of the most important goals for the new Soviet government was full employment. Everyone, from workers to artisans, was expected to do their part and help create the new Communist state. With the emphasis on artistic expression, artisans were put to work creating monuments, paintings, and murals that would be easy for the average person to understand. These works of art would represent important people and events in the formation of the Soviet Union, the most important person being the leader of the revolution, Vladimir Lenin.
Almost immediately after Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet leadership set out to establish a “Cult of Lenin.” The purpose of this cult was to create order in the chaotic state and establish unity between the people and the state itself (Tumarkin, 203). Lenin was the natural choice for such a task. In his own lifetime, Lenin had achieved legendary status. Regardless of personal opinions about Lenin, one would find it hard to deny the impact that he left on Russia and the world as a whole. A quasi-religious cult was established with the purpose of bringing this mythical leader closer to the people (Forest and Johnson, 533). Statues, busts, and murals depicting Lenin in various revolutionary situations began to crop up all across the Soviet Union. Lenin was untouchable as far as criticism was concerned. He was the infallible, perfect leader of the revolution and nothing with his name attached to it was open to criticism. If the state could maintain a line of continuity between itself and the vision of Lenin, then its legitimacy would be assured. Once Stalin rose to power, he quickly tried to co-opt this power for himself. He immediately set out to establish himself as the legitimate successor to Lenin and created a personality cult around himself. The Lenin-Stalin cult was practically the state religion until Stalin’s death in 1953. Upon coming to power, Nikita Khrushchev started to dismantle the Lenin-Stalin cult. Through his famous “secret speech,” Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his brutal practices. He began reforming the Stalinist system by relaxing laws and freeing political prisoners from the gulag system. However, Khrushchev never denounced Lenin. Lenin was not any less guilty of atrocities than Stalin, but it would have been political suicide to brand Lenin as a criminal. Thus, the Cult of Lenin would remain intact, and the narrative of Lenin as the infallible creator of the Soviet Union would only become stronger.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left post-Soviet Russia with the question of what to do with the symbols of the communist era. Naturally, different groups had different visions for post-Soviet Russia, and with those visions came different ideas of how to deal with the sites of memory that permeated the Russian landscape. One example of a symbol that has been repurposed by the Russian government is the Soviet legacy of World War II. In the Russian imagination, the Soviet Union was the true victor of the war. The country faced the brunt of Hitler’s invaders, suffered the most casualties, and survived the harshest fighting in the war. World War II monuments are everywhere in Russia. Rather than focusing on the Soviet role in the war, these monuments depict a more personal struggle. The state is deemphasized in favor of individuals. Soviet rhetoric is replaced by Russian unity. One large memorial park in Moscow exemplifies this change. The park is home to religious symbols of Orthodoxy, Islam, and Judaism, to represent the diversity of modern Russia and distance itself from the atheist Soviet legacy. This frames the war as a Russian victory, not a Soviet one (Forest and Johnson, 531-532).
The dilemma of Lenin statues was much more difficult to deal with than the memory of World War II. Lenin is symbolic of everything the Soviet Union ever was. It is difficult to repackage and co-opt symbols of the man who created the state one is trying to replace. On one hand, destroying the statues is a complete rejection of the last 70 years and a message to all Russians that the cult they were indoctrinated into since birth is wrong. On the other hand, maintaining the symbols could be seen as condoning or apologizing for the multitude of abuses and examples of oppression for which the Soviet Union was responsible (Merewether, 188). Some statues were indeed destroyed, especially in former Soviet states such as Ukraine or the Baltic states that were more hostile towards Lenin. Others found their way into private ownership to be displayed ironically or to be bought and sold as a commodity (Popescu, 407). However, many Lenin statues were not removed because the Russian government believes they still have a role to play in forming Russian identity. Lenin has taken on a role similar to that of Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin and Lenin share a near godlike status. They have transcended the time in which they lived and represent more than Tsarist and Communist Russia. Rather than emphasizing the role of Lenin as a communist, the new emphasis is on Lenin as an influential Russian. Forest and Johnson claim that this continued worship of Lenin and other symbols of the Soviet era is a result of a failure of Russia to develop a civil society in the post-Soviet era and the perceived failure of Western economic models in the country. This return to Soviet symbols for identity is evidenced by measures taken by Putin to reinvigorate the old Soviet national anthem with new lyrics, to leave the body of Lenin in his public tomb against popular opinion, and even to break the taboo around mentions of Stalin (Forest and Johnson, 539-540).
Reverence for Lenin is not uniform across Russia. While busts, statues, and murals depicting Lenin are around almost every corner in Moscow, in St. Petersburg, one must go out of one’s way to find even the smallest Soviet symbol. For the most part, St. Petersburg seems to have embraced its role as the imperial capital and turned towards the tsarist past to define itself. However, Lenin still plays a role here too. Streets may have been renamed to their pre-Soviet names, but the Communist past is still present. The city was named Leningrad after Lenin’s death and held this name until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many older citizens still use the name in casual conversation without correcting themselves. The important role Lenin played in the development of modern St. Petersburg can be seen in physical form as well. In front of the Finland Railway Station in St. Petersburg sits
one of the first Lenin statues ever erected. The statue depicts Lenin atop an armored car, gesturing forwards with his arm in an impassioned historical gesture. This statue was built on the spot where Lenin returned from exile in 1917, giving a speech to a group of soldiers, sailors, and workers, beginning his personal return to the revolutionary events of 1917 (Monument to Lenin). The pose and style of the statue served as a prototype for future memorials and the famous pose can be seen on many murals and monuments. The area around the statue is well maintained and is a prominent tourist destination. Fountains were added to the square surrounding the statue to give it an even more dignified and important appearance. The square is used as a gathering spot by locals and many children can be seen playing around the fountains. The significance of the area is obvious. To the people of St. Petersburg, it is a symbol of Russian greatness, dedicated to a world changing figure.
Before I traveled to Russia, I expected to find a large amount of apathy towards Lenin and the Soviet past. Instead, I found that the cult of Lenin still survives in an altered form. There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the Soviet era in modern Russia, a feeling that things were better before western influence turned the country into one of haves and have-nots. Rejecting Lenin is an unthinkable prospect for much of Russia. To do so would be to reject everything they knew to be true while growing up. After the turbulent 90s, there were few other valid symbols of power to look up to. Political apathy is high, but so is nationalism. National symbols such as Pushkin and Lenin have taken on more than political significance. Lenin is not only a communist, he is an exceptional man who created a country from nothing. His legacy was attached to the industrialization of a peasant society. Most importantly, he is a Russian. Through Lenin, Russians have someone to look up to. A man who refused to accept things as they were and actively worked to improve society. Atrocities committed in his name are explained away or simply denied, because the alternative is to admit the fallibility of an infallible man. Rather than admit that everything they knew was wrong, Russians have largely chosen to venerate Lenin and the sites of memory that bear his face.