It was half term here in Moscow, so, of course, we went to see Lenin. He is, after all, indoors, and it was a bit drizzly. Also, I have felt oddly guilty – I’ve been here over a year, been to the Bolshoi, the Tretyakov, even Ikea, but not to visit Vladimir Ilyich… it was starting to seem disrespectful.
There’s the possible deadline too (once a journalist, always a journalist: I like a bit of pressure). Lenin’s embalmed body has lain in a mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square since his death in 1924 (it was temporarily whipped off to Siberia to avoid the approaching Nazis during World War II), but now there is renewed talk of moving him at last. Putin’s party, United Russia, launched a web referendum last January on whether it might be time to let the leader of the 1917 Revolution rest in peace beside his mum in a St Petersburg cemetery, and though nothing’s been decided it’s hard to believe he has many more years to go on public view.
So, I didn’t want to miss him: people can still disappear suddenly in Russia.
It was a damp Tuesday when I turned up with two of the three children (daughter, 11, and son, five) to join the Lenin queue. We trekked past St Basil’s across the expanse of Red Square towards Lenin’s red and black stone pyramid, only to be directed out again on the far side of the square to a spot at the foot of the Kremlin Wall beside the Alexandrovsky Gardens. There were maybe 100 people queuing – Russians, mostly, all ages, some with kids; all waiting patiently. I can’t say there was a breathless sense of anticipation – the whole set-up is typically “public Russian”: low-key, orderly and self-controlled – but the handful of returning visitors making their way back past the queue had that strange look worn by worshippers who have just taken communion: a sort of brief transfiguration, a borrowed specialness, swiftly lost as they headed off towards Tverskaya and the shops.
Some 40 minutes passed; my pair of pilgrims grew restless and a delegation was despatched to bring back McDonald’s muffins and coffee. I hoped Lenin wasn’t spinning in his mausoleum. Chilled-looking soldiers ushered groups of 15 or so past a barrier and up into the corner of Red Square, and suddenly we too were waved through. There was a strange temptation to break into a trot, as if this were Harrods’ sale, but we resisted and went to drop off my mobile in the bag locker (no camera, video or still, may record Lenin, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to bend the rules). Leaving your stuff costs a few roubles, but seeing the man himself is free – an unparalleled bargain in modern Moscow and sufficient reason in itself to visit.
Phone deposited, we passed through metal detectors and a bag check by more guards and then, finally, were allowed into the secured area alongside the sheer red Kremlin wall, where plaques mark the ashes of major Communist figures and Soviet heroes such as Gagarin. There’s a Scot there too: Arthur MacManus, first chairman of the Communist Part of Great Britain and the second “signatory” to the forged Zinoviev letter inciting the Brits to revolution.
Again, there’s a small temptation to run towards the hefty granite blocks of the mausoleum, but as you enter the theatrics kick in and larky visitors are swiftly put in their place. You descend down steps within a corridor of polished black stone (it’s labradorite, the latest thing in mausoleum interiors), passing adolescent but solemn soldiers stationed at each turn of the stair. The lights are dimmer, turning to a strange red glow in the central chamber itself, as if Lenin were lit by fishtank heaters. In the centre of this underground room (there’s no natural light) stands a glass-topped sarcophagus – the sort Snow White is usually pictured in, though of course she woke up. Lenin lies inside, propped up slightly, hands folded, wearing a suit (he used to wear a military uniform but then someone decided it gave the wrong impression). He’s entirely unghoulish – like a model of himself, not a corpse. A little behind other visitors, we passed through alone, the children peering but not in the least alarmed. “His whiskers are funny,” said my son as we were ushered on by the guards (stopping is not permitted). “He looks like a pretendy man.”
It’s true: in the pinkish gloom nothing looks real, least of all the bloke under the glass. In an odd way, the décor is almost more striking than the body: red porphyry jags slice across the glittery black of the walls. The drama is deliberate, borrowed from a thousand pilgrimage sites and maybe a bit from Disney, but stopping short of kitsch. The atmosphere is genuinely solemn: you’re not allowed to laugh and you don’t want to, whether you understand the full bloody force of Russian history or not. Lenin isn’t Lenin now: he’s a symbol of Lenin, and that’s why he’s so difficult to move. Corpses can be buried; history can’t.
We stepped back up the dark steps and out into the light, where the graves of Stalin (once co-occupant of the mausoleum), Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernyenko and others await.
Behind us, the slow trickle of visitors – tourists, the curious, pilgrims – carried on.