Not long after the death of the Soviet Union's founder in 1924, a popular poet soothed and inspired the grieving country with the words: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.”
A century later, the once-ubiquitous image of Vladimir Lenin is largely an afterthought in modern Russia, despite revolutionary writer Vladimir Mayakovsky's famous lines.
The Red Square mausoleum, where his embalmed body lies in an open sarcophagus, is no longer a near-obligatory pilgrimage but a place of macabre kitsch, open just 15 hours a week. It attracts far fewer visitors than the Moscow Zoo.
The goateed face, with its intense glow that once seemed unavoidable, still stares out of statues, but many of them have been the target of pranksters and vandals. The one at the Finnish Station in St. Petersburg commemorating his return from exile was hit by a bomb that left a large hole in his backside. Many streets and towns that bore his name were renamed.
FILE – Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, poses for a photographer in Gorky, near Moscow, in this 1922 photo. He died on January 21, 1924. (AP Photo)
The ideology that Lenin represented and spread across a vast territory is something of a sideshow in modern Russia. Despite being the largest opposition group in parliament, the Communist Party holds just 16% of seats and is overwhelmed by President Vladimir Putin's United Russia political power base.
Lenin “proved to be completely superfluous and unnecessary in modern Russia,” historian Konstantin Morozov of the Russian Academy of Sciences told the AP.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov speaks as if Lenin is still in charge: “100 years from the day his great and kind heart ceased, the second century of Lenin's immortality begins,” he said.
Russian communists carry a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, and red flags after visiting his mausoleum to mark his 152nd birthday in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file)
Putin himself seems inclined to keep Lenin at a distance and even point a few arrows at him.
In a speech three days before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Putin dismissed its sovereign status as an illegitimate holdover from Lenin's era, when it was a separate republic within the Soviet Union.
“As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called 'Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's Ukraine.' He is the author and the architect,” Putin said.
In a speech a year earlier, Putin said that granting Ukraine and other republics the nominal right to secede had planted “the most dangerous time bomb.”
Russian communists and supporters walk with their flags and a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, to his mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Monday, April 22, 2019, to mark his 149th birthday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
Whatever the objections to this policy, Putin is also aware of the emotional power that Lenin wields over many Russians, and he does not support initiatives that regularly arise to remove the body from the mausoleum.
“I believe it should remain as it is, at least as long as there are such, and there are quite a few people who associate their lives, their fate, as well as certain achievements … of the Soviet era with it,” he said in 2019.
Such connections can last for decades. A 2022 opinion poll by state pollster VTsIOM found that 29% of Russians believed Lenin's influence would wane so much that in 50 years he would be remembered only by historians. But that answer was only 10 percentage points lower than one to the same question a decade earlier, suggesting that Lenin remains important.
Lenin's hold on the heart of Russia remains so strong that three years ago the Association of Russian Architects gave in to public outcry and canceled a competition seeking proposals for repurposing the Red Square mausoleum. This competition did not even explicitly call for the removal of Lenin's body.
The embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, lies behind glass in his mausoleum on Red Square in front of the Kremlin wall in Moscow, Russia, in this Nov. 30, 1994 photo. (AP Photo, File)
Lenin died on January 21, 1924 at the age of 53, severely weakened by three strokes. His widow Nadezhda Krupskaya wanted him to be buried in a conventional grave.
Lenin's close confidants had feared his death for months. Artist Yuri Annenkov, summoned to his portrait at the dacha where he was recovering, said he had “the helpless, twisted, infantile smile of a man who has fallen into childhood.”
Amid these concerns, Joseph Stalin reported at a Politburo meeting a proposal by “some comrades” to preserve Lenin's body for centuries, according to a chronicle by the Russian news agency Tass. The idea offended Leon Trotsky, Lenin's closest deputy, who compared it to the holy relics exhibited by the Russian Orthodox Church – a staunch opponent of the Bolsheviks – which had “nothing in common with the science of Marxism.”
But Stalin, once a student of theology school, understood the value of the secular analogue of a saint.
The first mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, who died on January 21, 1924, is seen on Red Square next to the Kremlin Wall on February 25, 1924 in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo, File)
The weather could have been the deciding factor. Temperatures reportedly reached minus 30 °C (minus 22 °F) when Lenin's body was displayed during a wake in Moscow. This halted the deterioration and prompted authorities to hastily build a small wooden mausoleum on Red Square and make further efforts to preserve the body.
A later version, a more modernist version of ancient step pyramids clad in somber, deep red stone, opened in 1930. By this point, Trotsky had already been forced into exile and Stalin was in full control, bolstered by a determination to portray himself as completely loyal to Lenin's ideals.
Ultimately, according to some historians, the “Lenin after Lenin” cult may have worked against the Soviet Union rather than strengthening it by enforcing a rigid mindset.
“The tragedy of the USSR in many ways lay in the fact that all subsequent generations of leaders tried to rely on certain 'testaments of Lenin,'” wrote Vladimir Rudakov, editor of the magazine Istorik, in this month's issue.
The Mayakovsky poem that proclaimed Lenin's immortality was “a farewell word, a magic spell or a curse,” Rudakov said.
People walk past a statue of Vladimir Lenin painted in the colors of the Ukrainian national flag on Thursday, February 19, 2015, in Velyka Novosilka, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)
According to Tass, about 450,000 people stream past Lenin's body every year, about a third of the number of visitors to the Moscow Zoo and a sharp contrast to the Soviet era, when seemingly endless lines strolled through Red Square.
The honor guard, whose stabbing twirls mesmerized visitors, was removed from outside the mausoleum three decades ago. During the annual military parade on Red Square, the structure is hidden from view by a stand where dignitaries watch the celebrations.
Lenin is still there – just harder to see.
Jim Heintz, who now lives in Estonia, has covered Russia for The Associated Press since 1999.