Today we’re super-efficient travellers. We go out for breakfast at Cafe Xray (which I learn later is the Russian for Cafe House – Coffee House – literally translated as Cafe Chaos. Anyhow, but it looks like Xray), line up for tickets to the Moscow Kremlin before the ticket booth opens at 9:30am, and line up to get into Lenin’s Tomb before that opens at 10am. Our haste is justified by seeing the lines as we leave, which extend into the far distance.
I feel genuinely excited going to the tomb. As mentioned, it and the Kremlin were closed for 4 days in honour of Russia Day, and a stage had been set up on Red Square presumably for a concert for Putin and his friends. But it wasn’t just the delay, it was the chance to see Lenin, the great revolutionary strategist, that raised my expectations. The approach to the tomb, along the Kremlin wall, had graves of international revolutionaries: Clara Zetkin, Big Bill Haywood, others I couldn’t translate. The tomb itself is a low, red and black marble building with the word Lenin on the front, which I stopped to admire and then was told to move on by a guard. Inside it’s dark, which was even more jarring after the brilliant sunshine outside. We trooped past at various speeds, me going as slowly as possible to absorb the atmosphere. Then Lenin himself appeared, in peaceful, waxy repose in his crystal sarcophagus. He looked a little too real to be a waxwork, but not real enough to look like he had just closed his eyes. I studied his face: he had a large forehead and a small mouth. No wisdom, no expression conveyed – I was looking at a husk.
This small man, who theorized how to remake the world on an entirely new basis, freed from the illusions of the utopians and the fears of the reformists, had been turned into the apotheosis of everything he represented. From the foremost revolutionary strategist, who thought of nothing but how to bring down the international capitalist system, he had been turned into the father of a nation. That seems like a big deal – and it was certainly presented as such – but only to those who have never read Lenin or known what he worked for. Every nation has founding fathers; the international working class movement has millions of unsung heroes, and a few leading lights. Against his wishes, Lenin had been defanged, turned into a symbol of bourgeois stability that he hated.
I emerged blinking into the sunlight with a sadness that I couldn’t articulate. It only gelled when we got to the Kremlin itself and saw the tombs of the tsars dating back centuries, and I realized what Stalin had done by initiating the cult of Lenin: he’d established a continuity between the ruling class of the old Russia and that of the new. He made the regime legitimate through adopting the symbols of the old one. Where the Tsar used to go to the church containing his ancestors before sending off his troops to fight, Soviets would go to the tomb of their ancestor before making whatever sacrifices the regime deemed necessary.
It makes me angry that Stalin could take a living movement and turn it into the thing it tried to overthrow. It’s cold comfort that Lenin recognized that, without revolutions in other countries to come to the aid of the Soviets, the Bolshevik revolution would be strangled. He was right: what he failed to anticipate was the grotesque way in which the new regime twisted itself to look like the old.
A security gate to nowhere:
The Kremlin was pretty, but the pictures of Tsars and church elders filled me with contempt rather than awe. Perhaps I was still upset about Lenin, but here we were, wandering through a private estate of kings. The Tsar’s people starved and worked their whole lives in formal and debt slavery; he had a private ‘Secret Garden’ within the walls of the Kremlin that he could wander in.
Putin’s owl, chained to its house:
The religious imagery was just a mask for state power: those images of saints weren’t about the glory of spirituality but about who had the power to wield the images. Here are the tsars, here’s God blessing the tsars, now do what you’re told. At least that’s how I read it. I was impressed to see, right at the topmost ceiling in Ivan’s bell tower, a picture of God. You don’t see that very often. It had to be God, because it was carrying the baby Jesus, and between them overtop was a white dove in a blue circle, the image of the Holy Ghost. God had long hair and a beard but was more well-kempt than a hippy.
No tourist was snapping pictures of this:
Or this – the Constructivist radio tower from the early 1920s:
A Soviet industrial mural near the Kremlin:
Our day only hit one snag: once we’d collected our luggage and said goodbye to our hosts, we had an hour to get to the train station. We knew which station, and it wasn’t rush hour, so we weren’t anticipating any problems. But Komsomolskaya metro station, our destination, has three train stations around it. We went to one with 20 minutes to spare, and were directed next door; with 12 minutes to spare, we were directed to the station next to that one. Then we ran up the platform, me dragging my bag and M. carting her backpacks. There were train ladies lined up outside the train as before; the first one told us to run. We got past third class to second, where a train lady told us to get on and hurried us through the carriage – she’d done us a favour because you’re only supposed to get on your car, but our berth was in the next one. (Later she smiled at us – Russians act tough but they’re genuinely nice.) We got to our berth with 4 minutes to spare. Sitting down never felt so good.