June 12, 2016

The Corpse of Lenin and the Rebirth of St. Petersburg


The Corpse of Lenin and the Rebirth of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is now 25: citizens voted to rename Leningrad as St. Petersburg on June 12, 1991. Lenin’s legacy was at the center of the change, and remains a hot topic 25 years later.

What's in a Name?

Tsar Peter the Great wanted a “window on the West,” and that’s what he set out to build on a cold and swampy bit of land 400 miles from Moscow. St. Petersburg, constructed at the expense of thousands of workers’ lives, was founded on May 27, 1703 and became the capital of Russia in 1712.

Fast forward to World War I. To get rid of the German-sounding “burg” at the end of Peter’s great city, the powers that be renamed the city “Petrograd” in 1914.

Then came the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In the consolidation of Soviet power in the years that followed, everything smacking of monarchy was slowly stripped away. After the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the scrappy socialist ideologue who became the leader of the Bolshevik Party and the young Soviet Union, the choice to rename the city “Leningrad” was basically a no-brainer.

Speaking of brains, renaming Russia’s second-biggest city after Lenin was only one of many symbolic moves made to concentrate power in the hands of his successors. After Lenin died in 1924, his heirs were afraid the Party would descend into chaos and the weak government would lose control of the country, still reeling from the Civil War. They needed a rallying symbol. That symbol was Lenin’s body – Lenin’s dead body.

Communist Canonization

One problem with running a fledgling country with an ideology that is utterly at odds with that of the previous leadership is keeping the people on board. The death of the leader became an opportunity to rally the fractured public around a common idol.

These are a few of the steps taken by the new leaders to get folks on board:

  • Display the leader’s corpse in Moscow for months after his death – giving mourning citizens a chance to pay their final respects.

  • Forget a few months: embalm the body permanently. In a way, this would create Lenin as a saint for a newly atheist society, and also represent the promise of the bright future he had envisioned.

  • Before embalming, remove Lenin’s brain. (Yes, that’s where the brains come in.) Surely science could benefit from the brain of a genius.  

  • Give speeches, hold events, and mention Lenin as often as possible so that his ideal would become ingrained in every Soviet citizen. The more they believe, the less they’ll question.

  • Name a major city after the guy. Done and done.

Even decades later, when many Soviet citizens were disillusioned with the Soviet system as a whole, the belief that Lenin was generally a good guy remained prevalent. At least, until Perestroika came along.

Loves Lenin Lost

Glasnost’, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness, meant that the secrets behind a lot of ideas formerly held dear were, well, opened up. One of the hardest to swallow for many Soviet citizens was Lenin’s history. Rumors began to circulate about his ethnic origins, the possibility that he had syphilis, the unknown fact of his short temper – a report that he kicked a puppy was particularly traumatizing for many.

Some rumors were true, some were not – one key example being a satirist’s “proof” that Lenin was under the influence of mushrooms and therefore, in fact, Lenin was himself a mushroom. What mattered was that these rumors called into question the ideals Soviet citizens had held about the Party’s founding father. Even for those who had long been disenchanted with Soviet power, the revelations about Lenin were shocking.

And so, the referendum on June 12, 1991 contained the question: "Do you wish to restore to our city its original name, St. Petersburg?" And over half of voters chose yes.

Peter Today

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a country facing political change often has a whiff of discontent until certain names with the taint of ideology are replaced by something that suits the new values.

Take the current spate of name changes thanks to Ukraine’s  new decommunization law – yes, 25 years after the end of the Soviet Union, but closely related to recent conflict with Russia. An October Square is now named for Andy Warhol, one village’s Lenin Street has become John Lennon Street, and a Lenin statue in Odessa has transformed into Darth Vader.

Ukraine seems to have chosen its new direction in naming, but the legacy of the Soviet Union in Russia continues to be a hot debate. Lenin still has plenty of streets and avenues dubbed in his honor, not to mention statues that have not been repurposed for Star Wars. But in Russia, too, Lenin’s future is uncertain: debates about whether to bury his body, still embalmed on Red Square, arise regularly, and one of his statues was decapitated in Moscow in early June.

And so, as St. Petersburg turns 25, Lenin turns in his grave – or, at least for now, in his mausoleum.

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