For the second time in recent months, President Boris Yeltsin proposed today that post-Soviet Russia finally bury the past and give the body of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin a formal burial after 60 years in a red granite mausoleum in Red Square.
Yeltsin called for a national referendum on whether to remove Lenin from the mausoleum, one of the best-known symbols of the Soviet Union. Lenin's body was put in Red Square after his death in 1924, and the mausoleum was built in the early 1930s when Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin, realized the propaganda potential of keeping his corpse on display.
"Red Square must not resemble a cemetery," Yeltsin told a group of intellectuals in St. Petersburg, where Lenin led his revolution to power in 1917. "Let's make it look Christian. The dead must be buried in the earth."
Yeltsin's suggestion goes to the heart of an identity crisis that casts a long shadow in Russia. Although the old system has collapsed, many Russians do not seem sure how to look at seven decades of their history. Symbols of the past, such as statues of Lenin and the hammer and sickle, still are on display in many Russian cities.
Yeltsin reflected a bit of this ambivalence today, saying that Lenin "did a lot of harm to Russia, but it is our history." He added that any changes must be "done in a gradual, civilized way, without either bulldozers or excavators."
The symbols are especially important for the Russian Communist Party, which dominates the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. Yeltsin, who was a party boss and later played a key role in dismantling the Soviet state, clearly intended his comments today as tweaks to the Communists, with whom he has been sparring lately over legislation.
"Certainly, the Communists will fight this, but I am used to fighting with them," said Yeltsin, who first broached the idea of burying Lenin in March.
Yeltsin suggested that Lenin be buried with his mother in St. Petersburg, saying Lenin expressed a desire in his will to be buried there but it was "ignored because of leadership propaganda." Lenin's niece, Olga Ulyanova, told the Interfax news agency recently that "there are no such documents" in the archives.
Lenin's corpse has been preserved in a glass sarcophagus, carefully maintained by scientists, and viewed by millions of Soviet and Russian citizens, as well as tourists, over the decades. Yeltsin already has removed the guards that once goose-stepped in front of the tomb.
On Wednesday, the Duma passed a law that effectively forbids the demolition of Lenin's Tomb. The law, while not mentioning the mausoleum specifically, designates Red Square as a "specially valuable site of cultural heritage" and rules out any reconstruction work that would "violate the historical appearance" of the square. The law still has to go to the upper chamber for approval.
Gennady Seleznev, the Duma speaker and a Communist, said he welcomed the idea of a referendum but predicted that people would vote to keep Lenin on display. However, in a nationwide poll by the Public Opinion Foundation in March, 48 percent of those questioned favored burying Lenin, while 38 percent were opposed. CAPTION: President Yeltsin makes a point to a crowd in St. Petersburg. In advocating Lenin's burial, he said, "Red Square must not resemble a cemetery."