Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#11 - RW 7268
New York Times
July 27, 2003
A Pantheon of One

The streets of Russia's capital choke with Mercedes, and the shelves of even the most remote Siberian grocery groan with Coca-Cola and Snickers bars. President Vladimir V. Putin attends NATO summits and tools around in a royal carriage with Queen Elizabeth. In a dozen years, the Soviet collapse and Russian rebirth have gone from banner headline to yesterday's news to been-there cliché. Modern attention spans are short.

But history looks to the long term. The nine photographs on this page are visible evidence of what most ex-Soviet citizens know too well: the Great December Revolution of 1991 changed a government, not a culture. Capitalism relegated Communism to Ronald Reagan's dustbin of history. What it has not done — yet, anyway, in Russia and some of its immediate neighbors — is fill Communism's vacated role as the nation's anchor. A hole remains. Lenin fills it.

To many an outsider, this makes no sense. After all, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin swept his country into war and famine, and laid the foundation for the very model of a ruthless and ravenous dictatorship. His legacy is a broken country where subsistence, not living, is the standard by which scores of millions are measured even today. Gleeful residents of the Baltic states and the Kremlin's old Warsaw Pact satellites pulled down his statue when Communism fell.

Yet in Russia, nobody toppled Lenin. He remains the central feature of hundreds, if not thousands, of town squares and city halls here and in the post-Soviet states of Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia. Not even Boris N. Yeltsin, when he was Russia's president, had the courage to take down his statue, not to mention the plasticine corpse lying behind his Red Square display window.

But it is not Communism that keeps Lenin standing — or lying, as the case may be. Only about 25 percent of Russians consider themselves Communists, and outright Leninists are living museum pieces. Lenin long ago outgrew his own ideology and entered the realm of myth.

"For most in Russia, including Yeltsin and certainly Putin, I think Lenin remained in a different category of historical characters," Michael McFaul, a Stanford University Russia scholar, wrote in a recent e-mail message. "Yes, his means where ruthless, but his ends are — were — considered just. To remove Lenin also meant wiping out 70-plus years of history, which even many of Yeltsin's allies were not ready to do."

Part of it may be that Russians see Lenin as a symbol of past greatness, a rallying point for a nation bent on recapturing glory. But neither Lenin nor Russia is so simple. Love it or loathe it, and even if he didn't deserve it, in Soviet days Lenin also embodied an idea that still resonates in the Russian and central Asian heart, and which many Westerners find alien: the notion that the good of the masses rises above the value of the individual.

As much as anything, that is the alloy that keeps Lenin's bronze and granite likenesses from giving way to time and change.

"Go to Tverskaya Street" — Moscow's most fashionable avenue, a capitalist mecca of designer stores — "and ask 10 pedestrians what they think about individualism," Leonid Dobrokhotov, an adviser to Communist Party leaders here, once said in an interview. "Nine, including the young people, will tell you this is negative. In Russia, we prefer to limit our opportunities, but to have guarantees. It's in our genes."

Scratch even a Russian who loves his new freedoms, and you may well find someone who still wonders why a Western doctor makes more than a factory worker and why the government let its oilfields and aluminum smelters fall into private hands.

Of course, it is equally simple-minded to paint all Russians as Lenin-worshipers. Capitalism thrives here, and Russian attitudes are presumably as prone to change as those of any fast-rising new nation.

But capitalism and Western-style democracy worship the individual, not the masses. So far, they are a veneer — patinas on a national monument to the ideal of self-sacrifice for the greater good.

Lev Kerbel, a renowned Soviet and now Russian sculptor and patriot, created countless Lenin statues for squares in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and even Cuba. His most famous is the grand Lenin in Moscow's Oktyabrsky Square, a huge figure on a pedestal surrounded by icons of collectivism.

"This was the idea — not to have Lenin just standing there, but to have the whole team who made this revolution," he said in an interview at his studio. "A worker, a peasant, a sailor at the front, those who made this revolution. And then a woman; she's a representative of a different class, but she also joined the revolution. And then the nations — an Uzbek peasant, other nationalities, the people of the north, and in the rear a woman with a child, a baby also looking up as if to see what is in store."

Today teenagers skateboard on the broad square beneath the monument. There are plans to erect a multimillion-dollar retail complex around it. But nobody plans to tear it down. Lenin is there for the long term.

"There was a guy once who splashed acid into the figure," Mr. Kerbel said. "But thank God — it does only good to the bronze."

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