Siobhan Kattago, PhD, New School for Social Research of the University of Tartu
Cover picture: People queue in front of the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square, in the background St. Basil’s Cathedral and Kremlin. March 1925 | Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Deutschland
“Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!”Vladimir Mayakovsky
Much has changed since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. An empire has vanished from the maps, while economic and social changes have proceeded quickly but unevenly. Yet, in spite of such turbulence, one of the most iconic places of Soviet memory still remains. Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, died in 1924 and has been lying in an open coffin in the centre of Moscow for over ninety years. More than a Soviet curiosity for the occasional tourist; Lenin’s Mausoleum, as the literal embodiment of state sovereignty, demonstrates the uneven patterns of commemorating and dealing with the Soviet past in contemporary Russia.
Before he died, Lenin asked to be buried in a cemetery next to his mother in Petrograd. Immediately after his death, opinions were divided as to where and how to bury him. Although Lenin’s widow was opposed to embalmment and public viewing in Red Square, Stalin prevailed. Lenin’s body was embalmed and prepared for his unusual afterlife. The idea of a temporary mausoleum changed in an unprecedented way when the Funeral Commission was renamed Commission for the Immortalization of the Memory of Vladimir Ulyanov Lenin. With this bureaucratic change in July 1924, Lenin’s body was transformed from being prepared for burial to having his remains preserved for immortality, remembrance and veneration. The Mausoleum assumed a life of its own in the power vacuum that immediately followed his death. After Stalin’s death in 1953, his body was also embalmed and interred next to that of Lenin. However, after Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin, his etched name was removed from the marble façade of the Mausoleum, and he was buried at a gravesite in front of the Kremlin wall in 1961.
Remarkably durable, Lenin’s remains have survived the various permutations of the Soviet empire and its subsequent collapse. With the exception of his removal for safekeeping during the Great Patriotic War, and regular periods of re-embalming, Lenin’s preserved body has resided continuously in the Mausoleum since his death. Throughout the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, Lenin lives. Although it was possible to bury Stalin’s embalmed remains in 1961, burying Lenin proves to be more difficult because his removal from Red Square entails a re-thinking of the October Revolution of 1917, Leninism, the role of the Communist Party and the creation of the Soviet Union. As a place of memory and long-standing artefact on the necropolis of Red Square, it is an iconic part of the memorial landscape of the capital city.
Warped mourning for the victims of communism
Alexander Etkind argues that individuals in post-Soviet Russia are characterised by a particular type of ‘warped mourning’. State recognition of communist crimes, while not absent from contemporary Russia remains deeply distorted. Suppression of citizen initiatives such as Memorial Society and Perm-36 Museum, dedicated to the victims of communist oppression, in conjunction with the continued veneration of Lenin’s grave indicate the complexity of coming to terms with the Soviet past in contemporary Russia. If Germany’s transition from fascism to democracy entailed defeat, division, occupation and criminal trials, Russia’s transition to democracy has taken different paths that include collapse, implosion, popular uprising and reinvention of the sovereign state.
Taking his cue from Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich’s (1975) study of the inability to mourn the Nazi past in post-war Germany, Etkind traces a post-Soviet ‘inability to mourn’ similar to that of West Germany during the 1960s. (2013: 207). The memory of Lenin as father of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union is distinguished from the memory of Stalin, associated with terror, the Gulag, modernisation and the Great Patriotic War. Indeed, while official German acknowledgement of the Nazi past began in military defeat, Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) continues to influence how the communist legacy is remembered in contemporary Russia.
The maintenance of Lenin’s embalmed body in a temporary state of waiting for burial illustrates Etkind’s concept of warped mourning. The artificial embalming and corporal adaptations have created a hybrid body that is neither fully human nor artificial, but something in between. Moreover, the protracted period of state mourning for the first leader of the USSR has blossomed into a theatrical staging of commemorative rituals. In venerating the sacred image of Lenin as a quasi-godlike sovereign, the criminal nature of the Soviet regime that he founded is obscured. Instead, the prolonged period of state mourning suspends Lenin’s body in between revolutionary time and that of post-Soviet Russia. At present, Lenin is waiting for burial, yet is viewed as if buried in an open coffin. Lying in state, in an extended wake of more than ninety years, his body has a ghostly liminal presence.
The grave as a sacred and haunted place of memory
If the grave marks the passage from life to death – what could a body that is perpetually waiting for burial signify? Moreover, if the regime that the leader founded no longer exists, why is he still revered as a modern-day relic? After all, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was not just any political leader, but the first leader of the USSR and father of the Russian Revolution.
Graves are one of the most primal places of memory, linking generations together and reinforcing the social need to commemorate the dead (Ruin 2019). Although many statues to Lenin have been torn down, Lenin’s Mausoleum is different. As a grave with human remains, it is not easy to dismantle or relocate.
Jacques Derrida’s attention to the unintended ways that the past haunts the present is relevant for understanding how the commemoration of Lenin’s role in the Soviet Union is a complex mixture of restoration, borrowing, rupture and continuity. Complementing the work of Etkind and Oushakine, Derrida reflects on the spectral legacy of Karl Marx and the relationship between past and present generations. Of particular importance is Derrida’s argument that living in the present means living with the inheritance of the past. ‘And this being-with-specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations’ (1994: xviii–xix). In reflecting on the complex legacy of Marx, Derrida suggests there is a different kind of relation to the past. If ontology is concerned with presence and existence, hauntology focuses on the presence of that which is absent.
‘All the questions on the subject of being or of what is to be (or not to be) are questions of inheritance… That we are heirs does not mean that we have or that we receive this or that, some inheritance that enriches us one day with this or that, but that the being of what we are is first of all inheritance, whether we like it or know it or not’(Ibid: 54)
Of particular importance is Derrida’s argument that living in the present means living with the inheritance of the past. Since we are heirs to the past, the way in which the past is received is very much open to interpretation. We do not choose when we are born. Our sense of self is first of all inheritance. Traditionally, an open coffin is the last instance when mourners bid farewell before burial or cremation. However, visitors to Lenin’s Mausoleum have been in a state of warped mourning for over ninety years. Instead of burial, his artificially preserved body has become a life-like hybrid monument, a pure sign and symbol.
Political theology of the Soviet and post-Soviet state
Immediately after his death, Lenin’s Mausoleum functioned as a kind of ‘pilgrimage site of the Lenin cult’ and was quickly associated with sovereignty (Tumarkin 1997: 267). Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to return to the purity of Lenin during the period of de-Stalinization conjured up Lenin’s spirit against Stalinist excess. Stalin had deviated from the foundational doctrine of Leninism and the spirit of revolution. Lenin was higher than Stalin; hence his physical presence suggested the continuity of state sovereignty and the Communist Party, regardless of changes in the political leadership.
As a place of memory, the tribune on Lenin’s Mausoleum was the most important place where party leaders gathered on revolutionary holidays to commemorate the October Revolution and the Great Patriotic War. The Mausoleum was the iconic site for viewing parades, especially those held on Victory Day so that the spectral presence of Lenin accompanied Soviet leaders as they stood over his preserved sovereign body. As Alexei Yurchak argues, Lenin ‘literally transcended every individual body of party members, leaders, and even Lenin himself; it was, in fact, the immortal body of the sovereign’ (2015: 147).
Scientists at the Mausoleum Lab (Centre for Scientific Research and Teaching Methods in Biochemical Technologies) preserve the physical remains of Lenin’s body. While only his face, hands and dark suit are visible to the viewer, the Mausoleum group maintains the flexibility and life-like quality of Lenin’s body. Once every eighteen months, his body undergoes lengthy re-embalming procedures lasting for up to two months — with treatments include attention to joints, hair and the skeletal system. Throughout the decades, doctors have developed new techniques for preserving his body, requiring regular re-embalming, baths and the substitution of organic material with artificial ones (Yurchak 2015).
While the modern secular state continues to sanctify relics with the internment of remains in tombs of the unknown soldier, the cult of veneration surrounding Lenin’s Mausoleum is different. If the cults of Stalin, Mao Zhedong and Tito were ‘cults of a living leader’ the cult of Lenin was anchored in his sovereign dead remains. (Tumarkin 1997: 3), In the Russian Orthodox religion, a person is considered a saint if their body does not decompose or putrefy. The fact that Lenin’s body does not decompose suggests his peculiar association with sainthood.
The cult of Leninism helped to shore up the continuity of the Soviet state. Lenin is not only venerated as the first leader of the Soviet Union but is symbolically linked to the October Revolution of 1917 and the continuity of the Russian state with the Soviet Union. He is associated with revolutionary time, as well as the lineage of the state from Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, through Stalin and present-day Vladimir Putin. Moreover, the extraordinary circumstances of his afterlife link him with religious relics and the immortal presence of the sovereign. His preserved body has become a state-sanctified relic linked to the legitimation of the Soviet Union and its warped mourning for communist repressions.
The breakup of the Soviet Union, coup d’état and transition to democracy left a power vacuum in 1991. After the city of Leningrad returned to its original name of St Petersburg, Boris Yeltsin removed the honour guards from the Mausoleum in 1993. He also suggested that Lenin should be buried, and raised the issue again in 1997; however, political forces were opposed to his burial for the sake of tradition and continuity.
In 2001, Putin argued against the removal of Lenin by suggesting that because many people in the older generation continue to identify with Lenin and Communism, his burial might dislodge their sense of stability. The Mausoleum, like the Soviet melody to the Russian national anthem, maintains national continuity and social stability during times of loss, difficult transition and political change. In contemporary Russia, legitimized by the Great Patriotic War and antifascism, there is little political will to bury Lenin. In 2010 Putin again argued against the removal of Lenin’s body from Red Square. During his presidential campaign in 2012 he linked the preservation of Lenin’s body to traditions within the Orthodox Church (Birnbaum 2013, Ponomareva 2012). In his speech, Putin echoed the sentiment of the leader of Russia’s Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, who argued that the preservation of Lenin’s body ‘complies with Orthodox canons and traditions.’ Appealing to the immense loss of continuity after the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin called for a return ‘to our historic roots.’ (Putin quoted in Ponomareva).
Lenin’s venerated remains sustain the continuity of the Russian state throughout its various permutations as tsarist, Soviet and sovereign democracy. As a place of warped mourning, his open coffin is a reminder of his political presence and mythical role in the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s Mausoleum merges the functions of gravesite, place of memory and symbol of Soviet state power. While there is indeed official recognition of repression during the Soviet Union, as long as his Mausoleum remains open, Lenin’s role in this state-sponsored violence is played down. His physical and spectral presence near the Kremlin highlights veneration rather than critical reflection. Lenin’s Mausoleum demonstrates that the past is not at all past, but has been rearranged according to contemporary political interests. If Soviet leaders could bury Stalin in 1961, they could not bury Lenin because of his founding role in the 1917 Revolution and the canonization of Leninism as a doctrine. The first leader of the Soviet Union has an unusual afterlife. He is undead.
 This is a shortened version of ‘Haunted House: Memory, Ghosts and Political Theology in Lenin’s Mausoleum,’ that was published in Constellations: A Journal of Critical and Democracy Theory, Vol 24, No 4, December 2017, 555-569.
Birnbaum, Michael (2013). ‘Lenin’s Tomb should stay in Red Square, Putin says’, Washington Post,
Derrida, Jacques (1994). Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London/ New York: Verso.
Etkind, Alexander (2013). Warped Mourning. Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Mitscherlich, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich (1975). The Inability to Mourn. Trans. Beverly R. Placzek. New York: Grove Press.
Ponomareva, Yulia. (2012). ‘Putin says Lenin should stay on Red Square’ Russia behind the headlines. 11 December 2012. http://rbth.com/articles/2012/12/11/putin_says_lenin_should_stay_on_red_square_21027.html.
Ruin, Hans. 2019. Being with the Dead: Burial, Ancestral Politics and the Roots of Historical Consciousness. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Tumarkin, Nina (1997 ). Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Yurchak, Alexei (2015). ‘Bodies of Lenin: The Hidden Science of Communist Sovereignty’. Representations 129, Winter 2015, 116-157.