When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and thus the founding father of the Soviet Union, died in 1924, his widow, Natalya Krupskaya, implored his followers: “Do not let your sorrow for Ilyich find expression in outward veneration of his personality. Do not raise monuments to him or palaces to his name. Do not organize pompous ceremonies in his memory.”
The followers turned their backs on the widow’s plea. They turned from her, in fact, like a furious whirlwind and created out of Lenin a prophet or a saint or even a god on earth. No other hero of the 20th Century anywhere is venerated the way Lenin is venerated in the Soviet Union.
Despite all the museums of atheism that have taken the place of Russian Orthodox churches throughout the country, the Soviet Union is now less an atheistic country than a Leninist country. Leninism is the state religion.
The blessings of Leninism are so important that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who is trying to reform Soviet society by shaking up its economy and bureaucracy, must be careful to place his proposals firmly in the Leninist firmament. Communist Party ideologues must search continually through the 47 volumes of the complete writings and speeches of Lenin to find scripture that justifies what Gorbachev is doing.
Ruthless, Pragmatic Politician
It is not difficult. Lenin was not only a revolutionary philosopher but a ruthless and pragmatic politician. He did not throw away raw power for the sake of a belief. He changed his mind often.
Lenin, according to Fyodor Burlatsky, a political analyst widely read in the new Gorbachev era, practiced “the astonishing art, admired by his contemporaries, of abrupt turns in politics.”
The most significant aspect of the search through Leninist scripture is not the ease of finding the apt quotations but the enormous and incessant need to hunt for them.
Even the most casual visitor to the Soviet Union is overwhelmed by evidence of the religion of Leninism. Every day, thousands of Soviet citizens wait for several hours in lines that stretch the length of at least three football fields for their opportunity to file into the granite mausoleum on Red Square that displays the body of Lenin.
Guards at the door order them to hush, put out cigarettes, take their hands out of their pockets, button their collars, button their coats. In silent reverence, they shuffle past a thick-glassed case that holds an embalmed Lenin with waxen, inert features and the red wisps of a goatee.
Every city abounds with monuments to Lenin. Every government building has a bust of him. Every office has a photograph or poster. Anyone can buy a gleaming lapel pin with his likeness at any street-corner kiosk. Some kiosks sell pins with the cherubic features of Lenin as an infant, looking like the baby Jesus. Bookstores sell children’s books brimming with illustrated parables about his kindly and generous deeds. Politicians, journalists and professors flavor their work with generous quotations from him.
Poets celebrate Lenin in religious imagery. Coming upon the house in Siberia to which Lenin was banished as a young revolutionary in 1897, the poet Yulia Dunina wrote, “People visiting places so holy have to be absolutely alone.”
“He died,” wrote the poet Valery Bryusov. “His life was but an instant in endless time, but what he did survives his death. His divinations are a guiding light forever lit.”
Scholars use similar imagery. Soviet dissident historian Roy Medvedev recently tried to explain why he did not believe Gorbachev would rehabilitate Leon Trotsky, the old revolutionary vilified by Josef Stalin, driven into exile and finally assassinated in Mexico by an agent of Stalin.
‘Trotsky Is Satan’
“In the religion that is Leninism and Stalinism,” said Medvedev, expanding the compass of the religion, “if Lenin and Stalin are gods, then Trotsky is Satan. To rehabilitate him would be like rehabilitating the anti-Christ in Christianity.”
A major religious vocation falls to historians, for they, like Talmudic scholars, must sift through the commentaries of Lenin to find meaningful truths. Historians, in the Gorbachev era, insist that they do not do this blindly.
“We have discarded our claim to having the final truth,” said Rodolf V. Philipov, a historian of the Marxism-Leninism Institute. Yuri N. Afanasyev, the director of the Institute of Historical Archives, said in a recent interview: “In no case must we perceive Lenin as a monolith. We must study him carefully to find out which of his ideas have a basic character, have a lasting value.”
Yet there still is a religious party line. It was outlined recently by several historians of the Marxism-Leninism Institute, the guardian of the faith for the Soviet Communist Party.
Lenin, before he died, had set down certain democratic principles. “As Lenin said, it is necessary to involve all workers without exception to manage all activities in the state,” historian Galina Murhina told a group of visiting journalists from The Times.
‘Potential of the Masses’
“Lenin,” said historian Philipov, “saw great prospects for the future in waking up the great creative potential of the masses.”
Valery V. Zhuravlev, deputy director of the institute, said that the “cult of the personality"--Soviet code for the repressive Stalin era--had created “tragic times for our democracy. . . . The last 15 years"--Soviet code for the Leonid I. Brezhnev era--had been a time when “the process of democracy was not enforced.”
Lenin’s mantle of democracy, in short, had been thrust aside by Stalin and Brezhnev but picked up again by Gorbachev. Gorbachev is thus the true heir of Lenin.
The rejection of Stalin as a prophet of Leninism is ironic, since he is regarded as the Soviet leader who did most to create the religion of Leninism, using it as a unifying force in the Soviet Union and as a religious and historical underpinning of his own regime.
In a study of Russian culture written 20 years ago, James H. Billington, the new Librarian of Congress, concluded that Stalin, a former seminary student in Tiflis, adapted many of the old rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church to the needs of the new Leninism.
Stalin encouraged the embalming and display of Lenin with his hands folded like those of orthodox saints. He issued photographs of members of the Politburo ranked in order of importance just the way saints were arranged in order of importance on either side of Christ in the icons in old churches. He replaced the traditional icons in the special chapel corners of factories with pictures of Lenin.
Stalin also set down the commandments of Lenin, expanded them into a book called “The Foundations of Leninism” and fostered a new, monolithic theology that allowed no deviations.
Rivals like Trotsky were banished like heretics. Now, according to the latest interpretation of the theology, Russians are beginning to learn that it was Stalin himself who deviated from Lenin’s democratic ways.