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Russia needs to lay its history to rest, but not Lenin

Among the attractions of Red Square, something is out of place. A relic of another time, a Russified pyramid: the tomb of Vladimir Lenin rests near the Kremlin walls. It’s Red Square’s most controversial feature, but not because of its structure. Inside doesn’t rest the grave of Lenin, but his petrified corpse. To the outrage of some and the delight of others, the tomb has never been demolished despite its controversy. As a foreigner in Russia I can say this about the burial. It shouldn’t happen; putting Lenin to rest would signify that Russia is still afraid of confronting its history.

Sanctifying the 100-year-old corpse of a communist revolution is as strange to Russians as it is to us. Since 1991 when the USSR fell, Russians have been begging the government to put the body to rest and demolish the tomb. The body, they argue, is a memento of a former way of life — a notion that has no place in a modern, capitalist country.

In Russia’s case, the situation offers two outcomes: embrace the past or cover it up. Both have serious implications.

Under Putin, Russia has once again started the stage of identity searching it saw after the USSR’s collapse. What are Russia’s goals? Are they simply to counter the U.S. and assert superiority? A strong national identity should not be based solely on opposition to something.

Part of this identity struggle is internal: figuring out how to address the past. Russia’s political elite in the 20th century called on cherry-picked aspects of the country’s history to rally citizens and invoke patriotism. The Great Patriotic War (Russia’s defense in WWII), for example, was on every Russian’s mind when NATO started to encroach into eastern Europe in the 2000s. Many saw the expansion as another invasion of sorts, after the Nazis first tried it half a decade prior.

And just as the Germans struggled with that part of their dark past, Russians must come to terms with their 20th century communism. The confrontation hasn’t happened yet; busts of communist leaders still decorate every city square in Russia, and an executive stance on the legacy of communist ideology has not been articulated.

Burying the body would be burying the argument. Instead of trying to forget that part of their history, Russians should recognize three things.

One, that Lenin was central in Russia’s 20th century history. For that he deserves at least some museum space. Second, the nature of the exhibit. It’s a tomb, not a statue. There is a huge difference. A statue clearly and brightly memorializes a figure for all to see. It is celebratory. A tomb, on the other hand, may be revered but its presence does not inspire and rally. Today, Lenin’s tomb is more akin to a museum than a memorial.

Third, whatever power Lenin’s icon still holds is waning and has been since 1991. Primarily the older generation wants to see him stick around. Young Russians do not identify with the figure in the same way their parents and grandparents do. Because of that, today’s Lenin is not a figure of the revolution — he’s a tourist attraction and history lesson.

By burying the past, Russians show that the icon of Lenin’s body still holds some power and that fear of an image is so great it must be locked away, despite the important lessons it can teach. But by keeping Lenin, Russians show that they are not afraid of their history. They take away the power of an unaddressed dark past.

As modern Russia advances, the weight of this debate will hold it back. Only by addressing the issue of a communist history — manifested in the debate over Lenin’s tomb — can Russia answer the question of the USSR’s legacy and establish its 21st-century identity.

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