DISCLAIMER: I understand that Lenin was a very bad man. Stalin gets the lion’s share of notoriety in the history books thanks to his ruthless purges and war tactics; but Lenin bumped off a few people too. Perhaps his rallying speeches, cute little goatee and the general romance surrounding the revolution often distracts us from the evil.
Still, I am obsessed with the old fella.
It all began in high school when Hobbo, my Modern History teacher, told us Lenin got pickled when he died in 1924. A crack team of embalmers removed his innards, pumped him full of chemicals, dressed him up in a suit then popped him into a tomb on Red Square. Millions of Russians queued to see his body, and continued to do so for decades. After the fall of communism the crowds dropped off and it became the realm of curious tourists.
I was gobsmacked. I found it so bizarre, exciting and deliciously wrong that anyone could just rock up to Russia and see this man, dead for eighty years, who had sparked such monumental events in history.
It became my obsession for the next ten years. This whole moving to the UK thing was really just a convoluted stopover on my way to Red Square. All the frantic saving, all the weekend jobs, it was all done with Lenin in mind.
Enduring a three-week Contiki tour was just the final stroke in the master plan.
On the first night in Copenhagen, our Tour Manager outlined the itinerary. He mentioned the words “Red Square” and “Kremlin” but I didn’t hear any “Dead Revolutionary In A Box”. So Rhi and I bailed him up in a corner afterwards.
“Hello there girls!”
“Enough of the banter. Do we get to see Lenin or what?”
Thus began two weeks of harassment, much like The Simpsons episode where Bart and Lisa want to go to Mount Splashmore. Can we go to Mount Splashmore? Can we go to Mount Splashmore? Can we go to Mount Splashmore?
Tour Manager couldn’t guarantee we’d see Lenin. Our time in Moscow happen to fall on days where the Mausoleum was either closed or we were scheduled elsewhere when it was open. All the way through Scandinavia and St Petersburg we worried that we’d miss him, consequently never quite enjoying the journey as much as we should have.
I’ll never forget that first glimpse of Red Square. We approached in the Contiki bus; orange and obnoxious amongst the local black Mercedes and crumbly Ladas. We rounded past the stern walls of the Kremlin then finally the multi-coloured domes of St Basils Cathedral came into view. While the rest of the group were still fumbling for their cameras, Rhi and I were off the bus and running to the Square.
Have you got some little thing that you always wanted to do? Some place you always wanted to see? The Pyramids, The Great Wall, The Big Banana? Your obsession may sound so stupid to someone else, but it’s your dumb little dream and it means a lot to you. So when you’re finally literally standing in it, it’s so exciting you think you’re going to explode.
And there was the mausoleum, L E N I N spelled out over the door in red, the first word I’d learned to read in Cyrillic.
I nudged my sister. “Holy fucking SHIT! Lenin is right over there!”
The next morning we got the news that the schedule had been shuffled. We would attempt to fit in Lenin that day between our Moscow Metro tour and the Museum of the Revolution. Woohoo!
The Metro tour was a whirlwind. Our local guide Galina took us to a half dozen different stops to show us the few remaining Metro stations with Soviet decor. It was fascinating stuff, hammer and sickles ahoy, I must post my photos sometime. But soon Rhi and I were antsy. Take us to the leader!
The queue for Lenin was long when we arrived at 11 o’clock. We had to be at the Revolution Museum by 1. We left Galina standing in her cloud of cigarette smoke and ran, barging past our undeserving comrades who thought Lenin was a dead Beatle. An anxious hour of queuing followed, with much clock watching and swearing as local groups arrived and were allowed in ahead of us.
Finally we were herded through the metal detectors and we skipped across the Square. I developed a slightly hysterical giggle as we entered the Mausoleum, but the monobrowed guard soon shhhhhed me into submission.
Lenin literally is six feet under, you walk down a sloping hallway into the tomb, it’s all black marble and dimly lit to give a beautifully creepy atmosphere. There’s been idle talk for years about removing the ol’ boy from Red Square and burying him with his family, which is what he wanted all along. But for now we can still experience this very surreal slab of history. No talking is allowed; even a smile earns you a glare from the guards. You have to shuffle past Lenin in single file without stopping.
And there he was. Finally. The great leader of the revolution, the idol of misguided university students, the yellow wax-like creature in the glass box. I felt that giggle fly up my throat and lodge somewhere behind my teeth. I clamped my mouth shut so only a faint eeeeee! eeeee! could escape, like a dying mosquito. I tried to focus, reminding myself that this was The Moment I’d been waiting for, that I’d never see Lenin again. I took in the blue/black of his fingers, the fine hairs of his little beard, the sickly pallor of his skin. He looked so small and sad, trapped beneath glass and fluorescent light.
It was all over in under a minute. Back out in the Moscow sunshine, we walked behind the Mausoleum to look at the graves of departed Soviet leaders. Each had his own bust: a pompous Brezhnev, a truly evil Stalin. Hats off to Josef’s sculptor, the evil eyes seemed to follow you as you tiptoed around the corner. It was the most terrifying lump of concrete since The Big Merino.
I expected to feel euphoric after finally fulfilling my lame ambition, but instead I was unsettled. I’d been in Russia over a week at that point and had seen such beauty and grimness, poverty and riches; a country that has weathered a shoddy monarchy, communism and now the confusion of democracy. Did Lenin’s body have a place in a country trying to move forward? Opinion is always divided when the topic comes up in Russia as to whether it’s a grim or glorious reminder of the Communist legacy. Watching scores of tourists in the queue, it seemed like a tacky, real-life Madame Tussauds.
All week I’d been feeling guilty for the romanticised view of Russia I’d had for all those years, and now my whole Lenin obsession seemed embarrassing.
And yet, just when I thought my Bolshie bubble had completely burst, I heard two of my tour mates yapping behind me.”That was, like, so creepy. That guy was totally fake!”
My eyes narrowed and I snarled, “His name is Lenin and he’s the real deal, dammit!”
That is when it all finally sank in and I starting cheering. I was in Red Square and I’d just seen Lenin. Whether it’s right or wrong, there’s no denying it was the coolest bloody thing I’ll ever see. And I don’t care what people say, that’s Lenin there in that box. I saw that revolutionary glint in his eyes, even though his eyelids were sewn shut.