Tuesday, March 16, 2004

What to do with the body in Lenin's tomb?

So what do you do with a dead body that's been lying around unburied for the better part of a century?

That's what the Russians are trying to figure out . It seems that some people want to give him a Christian burial. Probably some people want to leave him in Red Square as a historical piece. I suspect that others want to throw him in a hole like the one the last tsar and his family landed in, but it's probably not on their better days--nor mine, since I'm the only one who mentioned it.

It seems that "a Russian Orthodox spokesman has called for Lenin's body to be removed from its mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square and reburied according to Christian rites." It's an ironic suggestion for a man who launched the Soviet Union's first attack on the Church: "In 1918 the church lost all its legal rights, including the right to own property. [Patriarch] Tikhon initially resisted, excommunicating the 'open or disguised enemies of Christ' (without naming the government specifically), but persecution soon overwhelmed him. His official position during the civil war was neutrality, though this did not stop the state from subjecting the church to bloody terror--or from employing an even craftier tactic."

Lenin started the "Living Church," more loyal to the Soviet authorities than to Christ, which probably would be quite comfortable among some congregations today. The Russian Orthodox eventually rejected it, but it caused confusion throughout the Orthodox diaspora. A Portland legend is that a Living Church priest was sent to our parish, and the babushki chased him away with umbrellas. Like a lot of these stories, it's probably truer in the gist than in the details, but when I grow up to be a babushka, I want one of those Russian power umbrellas.

Since Lenin's death in 1924, generations of Russian embalmers have maintained his body in an "incorrupt" state in a glass box. During the days of the Soviet Union, people used to visit the site by the thousands. When I was in Moscow in 1995, I didn't see a long line waiting to get in, but I passed on the chance to see it myself--it felt like principle at the time; perhaps it was squeamishness.

But the symbolism would not have been lost on a people with a thousand years of saints. On the same trip, I stood in a long line to venerate the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Sergeiev Posad, and even with the incense clouding the chapel, the relics themselves smelled like flowers.

Christian Century tells the story that soon after Lenin's death, a sewage leak flooded the original wooden mausoleum. Patriarch Tikhon (later himself martyred) said: "For relics such as these--an appropriate oil."

In the meantime, what to do with someone responsible for the martyrdom of thousands, much of the confusion and chaos that exists in the Orthodox world today, and who was held up in a Soviet imitation of a saint just a stone's throw from St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square?

I know a Russian woman, now in her 80s, who had the opportunity to visit Moscow for the first time since her parents escaped with their lives. Her trip happened in 1994, when the Russian Army declined to fire on the demonstrators and the Soviet Union effectively died. She was talking about how sad it was that Lenin was still in Red Square and how they ought to give him a decent burial, and a Catholic priest friend replied, "You know why people go to see his body?" He waited a beat. "They go to see the birthplace of Dostoevsky and Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. But they go to Lenin's tomb to be sure that the son of a bitch is dead." (He didn't use a euphemism, nor did this very proper Russian-American lady when she repeated the story to me.)

So maybe it's a translation problem: the patriarchate spokesman meant something like "decent" or "appropriate," and whoever retold the story got it down as "Christian." I guess it's not my place to dictate, since my only contact with Soviet oppression has been Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. It's not like the Russians to get confused on matters like this. I'll be waiting to see what they decide to do.

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