Opinion

Artists Confront the Uncomfortable Legacy of Lenin

Scenes from the viral video depicting members of the Blue Rider group dousing Lenin's Mausoleum with holy water. (via YouTube/
Scenes from the viral video depicting members of the Blue Rider group dousing Lenin’s Mausoleum with holy water. (via Грани.Ру”s YouTube channel)

This week, two men made headlines when they doused the tomb of the Soviet Union’s first leader Vladimir Lenin with holy water while reportedly shouting “Rise up and leave!” The guerrilla action in Moscow’s Red Square was titled “Exorcising the Devil, Desecrating the Mausoleum” and landed the duo, dance teacher Oleg Basov and computer programmer Yevgeny Avilov — members of an anti-establishment art group called Blue Rider — in jail for 10 days.

According to the Guardian, “the aim of the performance was ‘to confront two myths,’ the communist idea that Lenin ‘lives’ and the Christian idea of resurrection.”

The legacy of Lenin continues to be hotly contested in Russia. A 2013 poll found that 25% of Russians thought Lenin’s body should remain in the mausoleum, while 53% thought he should be buried.

A view of Yevginey Fiks's Lenin Museum exhibition at CUNY Graduate Center (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A view of Yevginey Fiks’s ‘Lenin Museum’ exhibition at the CUNY Graduate Center (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Recently, New York–based artist Yevgeniy Fiks, whose work often involves excavating the history of 20th-century Communism, mounted an exhibition at the CUNY Graduate Center titled The Lenin Museum. Focused on the intersection of sexuality (particularly homosexuality) and communism, the show included paintings of renowned gay male cruising spots in Moscow, including the Lenin Museum, a documentary video about gay life during the Soviet period, and reports from the post-Soviet Russian media, which often tries to smear Lenin by portraying him as being pro-gay.

Fiks’s show probed an uncomfortable alliance in Russian history between Soviet forces and progressive sexual activists. That short-lived period of freedom eventually gave way to anti-gay repression under Joseph Stalin. The exhibition offered a compelling look at social mores and their manipulation by political forces. At the center of the show was an installation of two bathroom cubicles covered with an image of the Lenin Museum and words scrawled inside from an old biography of Lenin that psychoanalyzed his writings and speeches for traces of latent homosexuality. The piece underlined the personal narratives that are lost in history books, and also pointed to the impact of our present ideologies on our views of the recent past.

Images from one of the videos in Fiks's Lenin Museum exhibition, illustrating contemporary anti-gay sentiment in Russian media and their attempt to link LGBTQ people and the communist past. (photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Images from one of the videos in Yevgeniy Fiks’s ‘Lenin Museum’ exhibition, illustrating contemporary anti-gay sentiment in Russian media and their attempt to link LGBTQ people and the communist past. (photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fascinated by Fiks and his insight, I asked the artist to share his thoughts about Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Blue Rider performance, and what it represented in Russia today:

That the body of Lenin still laying in the Mausoleum on display 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union is truly remarkable. For many Russian liberals (read neoliberals) it’s a sign of impossibility or unwillingness on the part of society to leave the Soviet era behind. To have a clear break with the Soviet malaise. Many in Russia see Lenin in the Mausoleum in 2015 as a failure. Neoliberals regret the fact that Russia didn’t undergo a process of lustration and allowed former communists to serve in the government till this day. Often, one would hear “till Lenin’s body is kicked out of the mausoleum and is buried in the ground nothing in Russia would change…”  But what would really change if Lenin’s body would be put in the ground? I doubt that this would, for instance, change the problem with corruption, social inequality, or curb xenophobia. Let’s for a moment assume that Lenin’s body is no longer in the mausoleum. Whom will the society blame then? In Russian, there is a great saying: “don’t blame the mirror if the face is crooked.”

The most recent action with pouring holy water at the Lenin Masoleum is one in a long line of desacralizations performed by activists in the Russian capital. Artists and activists who perpetrated these actions play the role of the proverbial Russian yurodivy — a type of jester, who is supposed to be allowed (at least ideally) to speak truth to power without fear of persecution. The paradox of this particular action, however, is that what the activists seemingly do — “getting rid of Lenin” or “resurrecting Lenin” — is what both the Church and the Communists would approve of. But the state, of course, only sees it as petty hooliganism.

Whether Lenin’s body will actually be taken out of the mausoleum someday and buried or “rise up and leave” remains to be seen…

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