The canon and the mushroom

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Alexei Yurchak. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.021

The canon and the mushroom

Lenin, sacredness, and Soviet collapse

Alexei YURCHAK, University of California, Berkeley

This essay focuses on a paradoxical transformation that happened within Soviet ideological discourse at the very end of perestroika, around 1990–91. The Party’s attempts to revitalize Soviet ideology by returning to the original word of Lenin unexpectedly produced the opposite result. The unquestionable external Truth from which Soviet ideological discourse drew its legitimacy—and that had always been identical with Lenin’s word—suddenly could no longer be known. This shift launched a rapid unraveling of the Soviet communist project. At the center of this unexpected transformation was the search for the true Lenin—a kind of Lenin that Soviet party theorists, bureaucrats, historians, and scientists hoped was still hidden in the midst of his unpublished texts and unknown facts of his biology, life, and death.

Keywords: Lenin, Soviet Union, perestroika, Soviet collapse, Stalin, communism, sovereignty, the Party

It is just that I’ve grown up
On Lenin Street,
And sometimes I’m weirded out
From my head to my feet

—Nol’,“Lenin Street”1[166]

The unexpected

A quarter century has passed since one of the most dramatic events of modern history, the collapse of the Soviet Union.2 The arc of Soviet history turned out to be precisely seventy-four years—it started on November 7, 1917, with the Bolshevik Revolution3 and ended on November 6, 1991, when the Communist Party was officially banned.4 To the Soviet people and external observers, the Soviet collapse had been unimaginable until it occurred.5 Western academics experienced it as their own profound crisis. “What did we miss?” wondered historian Donald Kelley in the early 1990s; Martin Malia lamented that the studies of the Soviet Union had “done nothing to prepare us for the surprises of the past four years”; Theodore Draper observed that despite all the mysteries of the Soviet system, its biggest mystery was, “why it came to such an unexpected end” (quoted in Remington 1995; see also Xenakis 2002). Cornelius Castoriadis wrote: “Search as one might, it is impossible to find a historical analogy to this pulverization of what seemed just yesterday a steel fortress. The granite monolith has suddenly shown itself to be held together with saliva” (Castoriadis 1991: 371). Even conservative George Kennan sounded less than celebratory: “I find it hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance more inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance from the international scene . . . of the great power known [as] . . . the Soviet Union” (Kennan 1995: 7).

But a quarter century later it has become common to downplay the unexpectedness of that collapse and instead rearticulate it in terms of unavoidability, presenting “what was previously unthinkable as inevitable” (Howard and Walters 2014: 395). However, that event was not inevitable, at least not at the time and in the manner in [167]which it occurred.6 It could happen but did not have to happen, which is to say, it was contingent. Contingency is a form of causality that is nondeterministic. In Niklas Luhmann’s succinct formulation, “anything is contingent that is neither necessary nor impossible” (Luhmann 1998: 45). In a more detailed version, contingency refers to “the possibility of multiple outcomes derived from similar causal processes due to the complexity” of contextual settings and relations (Jones and Hanham 1995: 187).

The current essay focuses on the sudden unraveling of the Soviet project, recognizing contingency as a key quality of that event. The collapse emerged unintentionally out of the attempts by the Party reformers to rejuvenate the political life of the Soviet system. Instead they unwittingly undermined what Claude Lefort called “the symbolic dimension” of the political (Lefort 1986).7 As a result of this symbolic mutation, all other problems of the Soviet state that had been real but not yet fatal until that moment were unexpectedly rendered grave, consequential, and constitutive of the collapse. These other problems included economic weaknesses of the socialist model, global economic restructuring, popular discontent of the masses, growing ethnic nationalisms, the unbearable burden of the arms race, et cetera, and they have been thoroughly investigated by many scholars (see, for example, Hollander 1999; Suny 1993; Verdery 1996; Wilhelm 2003; etc.).8 However, it was the unexpected symbolic mutation of the system that created the conditions for these other problems to become devastating.9

For Lefort, power cannot be analyzed without considering its symbolic representations. Such representations are not posterior to “society” but are part of the process through which society is constituted. They give society a vision of the real world and establish the ontological categories of reality—such as, the society’s perception of itself as a social unity, its understanding of the lawful and the unlawful, sense and nonsense, existent and nonexistent, mutable and immutable, questionable and unquestionable, et cetera.10 The fact that the collapse of the Soviet state had been unimaginable to insiders and outsiders, and nonrepresentable by means of the Soviet political discourse, was a constitutive element of the symbolic dimension of the Soviet political system.

The conditions for the collapse first emerged when a rupture in this symbolic dimension occurred during perestroika. As a result of this rupture, questions were [168]asked and contradictions were exposed that previously could not be even formulated. The goals of the perestroika were at first imagined not in terms of ideological reforms but in terms of economic and institutional rejuvenation. Mikhail Gorbachev explained them as an attempt “to put the economy into some kind of order, to tighten up discipline, to raise the level of organization and responsibility, and to catch up in areas where we were behind” (Gorbachev 1987: 27). However, by introducing this goal, Gorbachev imagined and legitimated it not in terms of economic efficiency but through the figure of “Lenin.” He compared his reforms to Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy (Breslauer 2002: 49). Lenin was the ultimate Truth to which the country had to return. But in the process of the reforms, Lenin’s role in the Soviet system radically changed. The transformation of the figure of Lenin and of its relationship to the categories of Truth and the Sacred were at the center of the Soviet collapse. These categories have been also critical for the anthropological analysis, and the end of the Soviet Union provided a unique new perspective on them.

Foundational truth

The materials analyzed in this essay are drawn from widely circulating media, theoretical publications of the Party, and general political debates of perestroika. They are not always presented in a consecutive order because the main task as I see it is not to present a linear sequence of events but to identify a broad shift in the political episteme of the period (see Foucault 1994; Hall 2001: 75–78). Most of these materials are linguistic and visual, and they serve as a structural equivalent of the ethnography of political collapse.

The Soviet political project was founded on the claim that the discourse of Leninism11 was correct and unquestionable. Any political decision, action, or figure in Soviet history that was recognized as Leninist was automatically endowed with legitimacy (Smart 1990: 5; Yurchak 2006: 73–74). In practice, however, Leninism had been changed, updated, and rewritten throughout Soviet history. Most of these changes were conducted covertly and quietly, but sometimes they were performed publicly and with much discussion. In such moments, it was argued that the party had to overcome previous distortions of Leninism and return to true Leninist thought. Even diametrically opposed events of Soviet history could be legitimized in this way. Joseph Stalin’s unique power and cult of personality were based on the successful and violent claim that as Lenin’s chosen heir, Stalin had unique access to true Leninism.12 The denunciation of Stalin’s cult and the [169]campaign of destalinization after Stalin’s death were justified by the exact opposite claim, that Stalin had violated Lenin’s principles and now the Party finally had to return to true Lenin.

In his Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev said, “Allow me first of all to remind you how severely the classics of Marxism-Leninism denounced every manifestation of the cult of the individual.” Stalin ignored the Leninist “norms of party life and trampled on the Leninist principle of collective party leadership.” With Stalin gone, the Party could again “lead the Soviet people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories” (Khrushchev 1956). Stalin was not simply criticized—he was disconnected from Leninism altogether.

A similar fate later befell Khrushchev. In October 1964, he was deposed from his position of the Party leader, and the Presidium of the Central Committee issued a short and laconically titled document, “On Comrade Khrushchev N. S.,” which read: “As a result of the mistakes and wrong actions of Comrade Khrushchev, that violate the Leninist principle of collective leadership, an utterly unhealthy situation has developed in the Presidium of the CC [Central Committee].”13 The statement was as unsubstantiated as it was damning: Khrushchev violated Leninism. This made every other sentence in the document superfluous. When in 1985 Gorbachev introduced glasnost’ (openness) and the following year launched the reforms of perestroika, he also justified them by the necessity to overcome previous distortions of Leninism and to recover Lenin’s authentic word (“Reformy i novovvedeniia” 2011). This claim was endlessly repeated in Party speeches and articles and in popular media.

The new critical language of glasnost did not emerge instantly, in 1985. It developed gradually, over time, becoming increasingly more elaborate by the end of perestroika. However, the visual register of this language—in the form of printed images and posters—developed earlier, partly because visuals are able to communicate complex ideas in a nonlinear simultaneous fashion that does not require the grammatical precision of linguistic articulations (Barthes 1977). Some images were printed in great quantities by the party and state publishing houses; others were issued in smaller numbers by the artists themselves. The latter, known as “authorial posters” (avtorskii plakat) were presented to the public at the shows of political art that became extremely popular at the time.14

The following three posters from 1988 represent the claims about returning to real, undistorted Lenin. The first poster, printed by the Party’s Political Enlightenment press and circulated widely, quoted the ubiquitous Soviet slogan, Lenin s nami! (Lenin is with us!), but changed it into a question, Lenin s nami? (Is Lenin with us?). The real Lenin in the picture, to whom one needed to return, is hidden behind the formulaic phraseology of the Party that represents distorted Leninism (see fig. 1). The second poster, entitled simply “1985,” a reference to the beginning of Gorbachev’s reforms, also shows real Lenin whose face is hidden behind distortions represented here by a dirty window (see fig. 2). And the poster entitled “Bravo!” (see fig. 3) shows Gorbachev as a conductor who is directing the orchestra of the [170]country according to a rediscovered “real” score by Lenin (the book on the music stand says “V. I. Lenin”).15[171]

Figure 1
Figure 1: “Lenin s nami?” (Is Lenin with us?) (S. Mosienko 1988, Moscow Politprosveshchenie)
Figure 2
Figure 2: “1985” (V. V. Zhukov 1988)
Figure 3
Figure 3: “Bravo!” (S. and A. Faldin 1988).

Unknown Lenin

By the final years of perestroika, around 1989–91, the suggestion that some of Lenin’s ideas had been distorted during some earlier critical periods had transformed into a new claim that the whole Leninist legacy had been distorted during the entire Soviet history. Every text and statement by Lenin that had been published or quoted earlier in Soviet times was now seen as potentially inauthentic. The newspaper Rabochaia Tribuna lamented: “After Lenin’s death, everything unfortunately was distorted, the whole of Lenin’s heritage” (Medvedeva 1990).16 This shift marked a paradox that emerged in the discourse of the Party reformers in the end of perestroika. On the one hand, they continued to maintain that the main task of perestroika was to return to undistorted real Lenin; on the other hand, they now also claimed that real Lenin was unknown.

In February 1990, a programmatic article in Kommunist, the main theoretical journal of the Central Committee, opened with this statement: the central task of perestroika is “to cleanse socialism of Stalin’s distortions and once again endow it with the true ideals of Marx and Lenin, the soul and heart of socialism that Stalin had stolen.” However, a few paragraphs later it elaborated: returning to the true ideals in fact amounted “to stepping on the path of experiments and not dogmas [and] endowing . . . socialism with new, earlier unknown content” (Sogrin 1990: 36). Perestroika’s goal of returning to true Marxism-Leninism was equated with stepping into the unknown.

Lenin’s texts, it was claimed, had been distorted in previous periods for a variety of reasons: some authors never seriously studied Lenin, others inaccurately retold his ideas in their own words, and the third distorted them maliciously. A professor of Marxism-Leninism wrote in 1990: “Our tragedy is that we do not know Lenin. We never read his original texts in the past, and we still do not do this today. For [172]decades we have perceived Lenin through mediators, interpreters, popularizers, and other distorters” (Mel’nichenko 1990).17 Kommunist pointed out that “diverse views, opinions and statements of the authors of the memoirs about Lenin” tended to be mistreated “as Lenin’s own principled positions” (Polevoi 1990: 66–75). For example, Lenin’s much cited opinion about the need for a strict Party control over culture was in fact based on his conversation with a German communist Klara Zetkin. Zetkin described that conversation from memory and in her own words. Moreover, she wrote it in German and the translation of her text into Russian was “far from ideal.” But this imprecise account continued to be cited “as if this were the words written by Vladimir Il’ich himself” (Polevoi 1990: 66–75). If Lenin’s close friend and political ally could be associated with such distortion, what about others? Kommunist announced it was “time to bring all of this to light” and conduct a thorough “inventory of all texts, records and interpretations” that had been ever attributed to Lenin (Sogrin 1990: 69).

But this task faced another challenge. Even the words that Lenin wrote himself could still be inauthentic because they had long turned into “dead quotes”—frozen, decontextualized maxims endlessly repeated with no attention paid to their original meaning. In late 1989, literary journal Rodina published an essay, “Reading Lenin,” by writer Vladimir Soloukhin that quickly became well known and circulated widely. Soloukhin wrote: “Every big boss in the country—a factory director, an army general—considers it if not obligatory then at least appropriate and impressive to have in his office a large desk with telephones and a book case with glass doors containing volumes of Lenin’s collected works. A great number of these volumes are on display in various offices. But very few people read them” (Soloukhin 1989).

Popular daily Leningradskaia Pravda added that even the Party leaders Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev never read Lenin’s works in full, “were obviously not Leninists,” and used his words “as an icon behind which they could hide” (Kosolapov 1990).18 In other words, instead of caring for the literal meaning of Lenin’s words, these Party leaders used them iconically, as frozen forms whose significance lay in their formal repetition.19 In a remarkable interview in 1990, Victor Golikov, who was a political advisor to Brezhnev for twenty-five years, described how Lenin’s words were manipulated in the Politburo:

Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, perhaps Shepilov20 were the last leaders who understood the theory of building socialism. Khrushchev was poorly educated overall. . . . As for Chernenko, there simply isn’t much to [173]speak of. . . . Even such mighty figures as Ustinov and Slavsky21 did not grasp what Marx and Lenin were really saying. Neither Kirilenko, nor Grishin, nor Tikhonov22 understood anything in the theory of building a new society. . . . And Brezhnev, to be fair to him, did not even pretend to be capable of using theoretical terminologies. When his aides inserted something sophisticated from the founders [Marx and Lenin], he would comment: “Don’t turn me into some kind of a theoretician, don’t make people laugh!” For that role they had Suslov. Neither Khrushchev nor Brezhnev would release any document until Mikhail Andreevich [Suslov] looked it over. (quoted in Golikov and Boldin 2002)

But Mikhail Suslov’s reputation as the ultimate connoisseur of Leninism soon was questioned as well. In another revealing publication in 1990, Fyodor Burlatsky, a former advisor to Khrushchev and Andropov, described a technique that Suslov used to manipulate Lenin’s words. Suslov, who occupied the position of the Politburo’s head of ideology, had an enormous library of Lenin’s quotes in his Kremlin office. They were written on library cards, organized by themes, and contained in wooden file cabinets. Every time a new political campaign, economic measure, or international policy was introduced, Suslov found an appropriate quote from Lenin to support it.23 Once in the early 1960s, young Burlatsky showed Suslov a draft of a speech he prepared for Khrushchev. Having carefully studied the text, Suslov pointed to one place and said: “It would be good to illustrate this idea with a quote from Vladimir Il’ich [Lenin].” When Burlatsky replied that he would find an appropriate quote, Suslov interrupted: “No, I will do this myself.” Burlatsky writes: “Suslov dashed to the corner of his office, pulled out one drawer and put it on the table. With his long, thin fingers he started very rapidly flipping through the cards. He pulled out one and read it. No, that’s not it. Then he pulled out another one. No, still not right. Finally he took another card out and exclaimed with satisfaction, ‘Ok, this one will do.’” (Burlatsky 1990: 182).

Lenin’s quotes in Suslov’s collection were isolated from their original contexts. Because Lenin was an extremely prolific writer who commented on all sorts of historical situations and political developments, Suslov could find appropriate quotes to legitimate as “Leninist” almost any argument and initiative, sometimes even if they opposed each other. Another writer remembered that “the very same quotes from the founders of Marxism-Leninism that Suslov successfully used under Stalin and for which Stalin so highly valued him, Suslov later employed to critique Stalin” (Tel’man 2011).[174]

Many of Lenin’s words were repeated at the level of form only, which did not render them meaningless but made their meanings unpredictable and opened them up to new interpretations. In different periods of Soviet history, a claim that one drew on the true word of Lenin allowed party functionaries to engage in occasional creative and critical thinking, too. In the 1970s, even local Party and Komsomol secretaries were able to engage critically with some Party policies in the sphere of culture if they articulated this critique in Leninist terms.24 Elsewhere, I analyzed the technique of reproducing the precise form of ideological utterances in the Soviet context, and changing the constative (referential) meanings invested in these forms; I describe this process as a performative shift (Yurchak 2006). This process was similar to a more general type of discursive transformation, when under certain conditions discourse (political, religious, scientific, etc.) may become increasingly autonomous and citational, resulting in the pressure to reproduce its form intact without paying as much attention to what this form was originally designed to mean.25 What made the Soviet case specific was that the performative shift was experienced by the whole regime of Soviet political representation, by Lefort’s whole “symbolic dimension” of the political, from the documents issued by the Party leadership to the ritualized and often disinterested engagement with the political in the everyday life of Soviet citizens. For example, most college students in the Soviet Union regularly had to copy key ideas (konspektirovat’) from the works of Marx and Lenin for the college courses on Scientific Communism and The History of the CPSU (which were taught to all Soviet students regardless of their majors). Most students simply wrote down the same quotes without paying much attention to the argument as a whole. This practice was publicly discussed during perestroika and later. The former students remembers, “If we tried to choose appropriate quotes ourselves, no one of us would have graduated from the university. Instead, we went to the university library, checked out a volume with the original text, and looked through it. Everything that you needed to copy had been already underlined by someone much earlier, in 1962 or so. The generations of students who came later had added the necessary page numbers in a light pencil on the book’s flyleaf. Our gratitude goes to all of them.”26[175]

As early as 1924, Leon Trotsky warned the Party leadership that the newly inaugurated discourse of “Leninism” risked becoming a collection of “dead quotes” that would no longer mean what Lenin intended (Tumarkin 1983: 130). This transformation of Leninist discourse continued throughout the Soviet history.27 In 1990, it was the liberation of Lenin’s voice from fixed form that had become the Party’s new goal. In April 1990, Gorbachev started his speech for the 120th anniversary of Lenin’s birth with a familiar claim, “Lenin still remains with us as the greatest thinker of the 20th century.” But then he added: “We must rethink Lenin and his theoretical and political work, and we must rid ourselves off the distortions and canonizations of his conclusions. . . . It is time to end the thoughtless and absurd manipulation of Lenin’s name and image that turns him into an ‘icon’” (Gorbachev 1990: 1). What Gorbachev suggested next caught most in the audience off guard and sounded almost blasphemous: returning to real Lenin, he said, required rejecting Leninism, the term that, Gorbachev explained, was invented by the Mensheviks to ridicule Lenin and that Lenin himself strongly opposed.28 Historian Boris Ravdin, also writing in spring 1990 in the popular journal Znanie-sila, pointed out that even the Institute of Marxism-Leninism,29 the country’s leading authority on Lenin’s thought, “for 70 years since its foundation has been fulfilling an absurd function—legitimizing for publication those [Lenin’s] texts that matched the canon [of the day], however far from real Lenin they were, and altering and modifying those [Lenin’s] texts that did not match that canon” (Ravdin 1990, no. 4: 20; see also Tumarkin 1983: 123).

If Lenin were alive

In an article in Kommunist in late 1989, Gorbachev emphasized: “We have underestimated that Lenin’s opinions of socialism were changing. We thought that if Lenin changed his opinions, it could be interpreted as his weakness, but in fact [this is] a sign of his strength” (Gorbachev 1989: 8). Alexander Yakovlev, a leading theoretician of the Central Committee, known as “perestroika’s foreman” (prorab perestroiki), expanded this point in spring of 1990: “For me personally, the greatest trait of Lenin’s character . . . was his ability to reconsider his positions if the living reality required this” (Yakovlev 1990: 21). Returning to real Lenin involved something greater than deciding which of his published texts were real and what their original meaning was. It also involved taking account of Lenin’s ability to change his opinions in new situations. For years, the official Soviet slogan was a well-known line from a 1924 poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Lenin even now is more alive than all [176]the living”30 (Mayakovsky 1970), which glorified the eternal, canonized, and therefore paradoxically, dead Lenin. But during late perestroika, one often heard another poetic mantra: “If Lenin were alive, he would know what to do.”31

In early 1990, the Plakat press of the Central Committee published a poster entitled, Slovo Leninu! (Let Lenin speak!) (see fig. 4). The large red podium with the Soviet coat of arms and microphones on the image symbolizes the canonized and distorted discourse of Leninism, while “real” Lenin is sitting on the stairs under the podium, looking decidedly mundane in comparison. We cannot see what he is jotting down in his notebook, but we can see that he is doing this in his own hand. The latter point was underscored by the use of a widely recognized photo of Lenin.32

Figure 4
Figure 4: Slovo Leninu! (Let Lenin speak!) (Chumakov 1990)

Also in April 1990, the journal Kommunist unexpectedly changed the design of its cover (Wolfe 1993). For sixty-seven years, the journal’s cover remained the same, with its title printed in a heavy font of Soviet political publications, against a dull greyish background.33 That cover was now rejected as a representation of canonized and distorted Leninism, while the strikingly different new cover represented real Lenin. The word kommunist on the cover was written in Lenin’s own hand34 [177](see fig. 5). In a letter to the readers the journal editor explained: “The new cover design includes a magnified facsimile copy of a fragment of the manuscript that was handwritten by Vladimir Il’ich. In this way we wanted to express our attitude to the heritage of the founder of the Soviet state . . . on the basis of which the journal continues its theoretical and political work.” (Bikkenin 1990; italics added)

The same transformation of dead Leninism into living Lenin was depicted on another poster from 1990 (fig. 6). Here Lenin has literally risen from the dead and is walking out of the mausoleum where his embalmed body used to lie. He is carrying a bucket of white paint, with which he wrote his signature farewell, “With communist salutations! ‘Ul’ianov (Lenin)’” on the façade of the mausoleum, covering the formulaic word LENIN written in a heavy Soviet font.[178]

Figure 5
Figure 5a: left: Kommunist Journal, old cover, March 1990
Figure 5b: right: Kommunist Journal, new cover, April 1990
Figure 6
Figure 6: “With communist salutations! V. Ul’ianov (Lenin)” (Reshetov 1990)

It is a commonplace that writing is different from oral communication because it persists beyond the moment of production, transcending the original intention of the author. How a written text is interpreted in the future is always partially unpredictable, which makes the author’s absence an element of the written text’s structure (e.g., Derrida 1977). But signatures are designed to compensate for the author’s absence (Derrida 1977). This evidentiary role may be also performed by other markers of the author’s physical presence in writing, such as the person’s unique handwriting. Reproducing Lenin’s signature, a fragment of his handwriting, and recognizable photos of him writing in his own hand reflected attempts, in 1990, to reconnect to a living trace of Lenin that, it was imagined, had survived and remained unaffected by the later distortions and manipulations of Lenin’s words.

The idea that one needed to reconnect to some surviving physical trace of Lenin at first did not sound too unfamiliar—after all, it had been always claimed that Lenin survived in our thoughts and deeds. But this claim was made metaphorically, while the new idea that one should “let Lenin speak again” was different—it was meant quite literally. Lenin was expected to say something absolutely new, something that no one could foresee. The difference between these metaphorical and literal references to living Lenin was stark. For example, in Mikhail Shatrov’s famous play, Onward, onward, onward! (Dal’she, dal’she, dal’she!), which was written during early perestroika and published in 1988 (Shatrov 1988), Lenin temporarily comes back to life. When the actor playing Lenin enters the stage, he carefully studies the set that represents an apartment in St. Petersburg where Lenin met with his comrades before the revolution, and says: “It looks very similar. . . . However [pointing to the flowers], we did not have those. Where would we get flowers in St. Petersburg in late autumn?” Then, addressing stagehands behind the curtain he continues: “And the tablecloth was made not of white fabric, but of regular oilcloth.” Stagehands run out on stage, take away the flowers, and replace the tablecloth. In this play, Lenin is revived metaphorically in order to provide a more accurate factual description of past events. But in 1990, one needed to reconnect to a surviving physical essence of Lenin for a different reason: not to authenticate the past but to hear something new and unexpected about the present.

However, how to achieve this task in practice was far from obvious. Leningradskaia Pravda put it bluntly: “It is paramount that we de-dogmatize Lenin and return to the living source (zhivoi istochnik) of Leninism. But how?” (Kosolapov 1990; italics added). Party theoreticians from the Central Committee contemplated possible solutions. A leading Party theoretician Georgii Shakhnazarov, writing in Kommunist, suggested a way of accessing this surviving “living source” of Lenin. One could put old Lenin’s texts in dialogue with the texts of great noncommunist thinkers and philosophers whom Lenin had used in his work, such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, suggested Shakhnazarov. This would allow one to generate new texts that Lenin could have written himself, had he been alive today (Shakhnazarov 1990: 56). If this job was performed with care, the result would not mean “some kind of belittling” of Lenin, insisted Shakhnazarov, but “a revolution in our theoretical consciousness without which we would never escape the shackles of dogmatism. . . . And in all honesty, no one would approve of this revolution more than . . . Lenin himself” (Shakhnazarov 1990: 56). Sociologist Vladimir Amelin, also writing in Kommunist, proposed to infuse Lenin’s old discourse with the [179]writings of Antonio Gramsci (Amelin 1989: 29–30). Although Gramsci was considerably younger than Lenin and most of his texts had been written after Lenin’s death, there was “a certain proximity between Gramsci’s ideas and Lenin’s views, especially in the final years of Lenin’s life,” explained the sociologist.35

Ultimately, the Party was invited to play a radically new role vis-à-vis Lenin. Instead of claiming to be the sole true interpreter of Lenin’s ideas, as the Party had done for decades, it now had to speak for Lenin, saying things that he had never said but might have said had he been alive today. Behind this thinking was the same assumption that a living trace of Lenin—his pure voice—had survived to the present day unaffected by the distortions of all his texts during the Soviet history. The Party was invited to say new things but in Lenin’s voice, engaging in a kind of ventriloquism.

Lenin’s final months

If Lenin’s pure voice survived undistorted, it was because it was imagined to have been located outside of the Soviet political language, untouched by its manipulations and beyond its constructions of “Lenin.” It was that pure voice, that voice-beyond-language, that still remained as the “living source” of Leninism, as one paper above (Kosolapov 1990) called it. The figure of Lenin that embodied that voice was also located outside of the Soviet language and politics. It was toward that figure that the focus of the Party publications and media now shifted. Discussions increasingly concerned those ideas, writings, and facts of Lenin’s life that were external to the Soviet language and politics, and for years had been censored, tabooed, and forgotten. This focus concerned especially—though not exclusively—the final years of Lenin’s life when he was isolated from political life by the Party leadership, when his health deteriorated and he suffered from speech and cognitive disorders.

In 1989–90, the first detailed accounts of the final months of Lenin’s life were published. In those final months of his life, between spring 1922 and January 1924, the ailing Lenin was isolated from the political world in the country estate of Gorki near Moscow, and his interactions with the outside world were limited. Many texts and letters that he wrote at that time had been censored and left out of Lenin’s later canonical collections. On several occasions, the Party leadership refused to allow Lenin to change his previous opinions. When in January 1923, Lenin sent his article “How we should reorganize rabkrin [the workers’ and peasants’ inspection]” to newspaper Pravda, Bukharin and Stalin tried to block its publication [180]and Kuibyshev suggested printing a single copy of Pravda with the article just for Lenin, printing the regular paper run without it (Valentinov 1991: 299–300). After deliberations, the article was printed in a regular run of Pravda, but on January 27 the Politburo sent a letter to regional Party Committees explaining that Lenin’s illness prevented him from following the situation in the country, and that his article did not represent the position of the Party leadership (Plimak 1988: 69; Perfilov 2012: 170).

Among the suppressed documents written by Lenin during that final period was the now-famous “Letter to the Congress,” also known as “Lenin’s political testament.” Lenin dictated the letter and several additions to it between December 23, 1922, and January 4, 1923. The letter that Lenin addressed to the delegates of the Thirteenth Party Congress contained a critical assessment of the political views and moral traits of several leading Party figures, including Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenev, and Piatakov. Lenin reserved his strongest criticism for Stalin, the current first secretary of the party, for his dangerous tendency to be authoritarian, intolerant of the opinions of others, and rude in private interactions. This made Stalin inappropriate for the position of the party leader, wrote Lenin. “Letter to the Congress” was read to the delegates of the 13th Party Congress, which took place four months after Lenin’s death, in May 1924. However, it was left out of the published transcript of the congress. From the early 1930s, when Stalin emerged as the single leader of the party, and until 1956, the Letter was called a forgery with which the Party enemies sought to undermine its unity. Possessing a copy was treated as evidence of treason and could cost one one’s life.

In 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, the Letter was distributed among the delegates of the 20th Party Congress, at which Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult. It was also published in the additional 36th volume of the fourth edition of Lenin’s collected works. However, this volume was rarely read and discussed in public, and the letter was rarely mentioned in the media, remaining virtually unknown to the Soviet population until perestroika (Spravka 2010). In 1988–90, it was published in several small periodicals (Plimak 1988), and in April 1990 it became finally available to a very large audience when it appeared in the popular weekly Ogonek with the circulation of 3.5 million (Gul’binskii 1990: 3).

Lenin’s health problems during those final years also came to be widely discussed around the same time. In 1990, historical almanac Minuvshee published a study, “Lenin in the Gorki Estate: Illness and death,” which details Lenin’s medical condition in those final years, a subject that had been previously taboo (Petrenko 1990).36 The text was reprinted in four issues of Znanie-sila, under the title “A history of one illness” (Ravdin 1990, n. 4, 6, 7, and 11). In an afterword to the publication, historians V. Lel’chuk and V. Startsev wrote: “Perestroika and the rejuvenation of our society . . . are not going to succeed unless we comprehensively understand the designs that Lenin laid out in his final works . . . during his final deadly illness” (Lel’chuk and Startsev 1990: 52). Gorbachev similarly started his address for the [181] 120th anniversary of Lenin, in April 1990: “It is in turning to the final Lenin’s works that we draw confidence in that the difficult path we are now taking is correct” (Gorbachev 1990: 2). The figure of Lenin that produced these final works, as we saw, was located outside of Soviet language and politics.

Although these publications claimed that they focused on the “designs that Lenin laid out” in the last two years of his life, in fact they focused as much on Lenin’s illness and the disorders that afflicted him. In summer 1922, wrote Znanie-sila, Lenin developed “a deficiency of the motor function as a result of paresis . . . [and] agraphia—a deficiency of the graphical function of language, accompanied by the disintegration of the image of a letter, and of the syllabic and syntactic symbols of writing.” He also developed alexia: his “ability to read aloud was substantially damaged, as was his ability to recognize letters, words, and sentences. . . . A little less, but still quite substantially alexia was manifested in the ability to read to oneself” (Ravdin 1990, n. 11: 154). The journal quoted from the diary of Lenin’s speech therapist: “The patient can pronounce only several phrases left in his lexicon . . . : vot [right], idi, idite [go], vezi [carry], vedi [lead], a-lia-lia [la-la-la], and a few others. These remnants of speech do not perform any semantic function, they are frequently repeated without any connection to their lexical meaning” (Ravdin 1990, n. 4: 21).

Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, started teaching him words and phrases from scratch, using ABC books for children in the hopes of rebuilding his vocabulary. But the results were pitiful. When Lenin tried to repeat phrases after Krupskaya, “words and syllables dropped out, sounds appeared in wrong places, and symptoms of verbal paraphasia persisted. . . . When he tried to repeat the word lemon, the word rose came out instead” (Ravdin 1990, n. 4: 22).

In 1990 and early 1991, the monthly Izvestiya TsK KPSS (News Bulletin of the Central Committee of the CPSU), which was founded in the end of 1989 specifically to publicize unknown facts of the party history and Lenin’s life, published additional excerpts from previously unpublished diaries, notes, and memoirs of Lenin’s doctors, guards, and relatives about his final months. Many excerpts focused on details of Lenin’s physical and linguistic disorders. Quoting Professor Kramer’s notes from May 1922, the Bulletin wrote: “[Lenin] is unable to say complex phrases and to name many objects. He understood correctly the words and phrases directed to him, but could not perform some movements at all, such as touching his left ear with his right hand. Conversely, habitual movements, such as buttoning up or grabbing a glass he performed on request quite correctly and without hesitation. He reads freely, but cannot grasp the meaning of what he read. Neither can he count in his mind or on paper. And he cannot write either spontaneously or under dictation or by copying” (M. Ul’ianova 1991a: 183).

Znanie-sila continued in a different issue in 1990: Lenin got better after the first crisis of early summer 1922, but soon his medical problems reemerged. In December 1922, the Politburo’s leading troika (Stalin, Kamenev, and Bukharin) issued instructions to Lenin’s doctors, nurses, cooks, guards, and other personnel: “All meetings [with Lenin] are forbidden. . . . Neither friends nor family members should communicate to Vladimir Il’ich anything about political life to avoid provoking any thought or anxiety” (Ravdin 1990, n. 6: 62). These instructions reflected a genuine concern for Lenin’s health as well as an attempt to isolate a powerful [182]political rival. Despite the control, Lenin managed to pass occasional notes to trusted members of the Central Committee through his close associates and his wife. However, usually the informers among the personnel managed to notify the Politburo about them. “Today we know,” wrote the journal in April 1990, that Lenin’s secretary “Fotieva D. A. worked not only as a secretary of the Presidium of the SNK37 but also as a troika informer” (Ravdin 1990 n. 4: 26).

Suffering from imposed political isolation and persistent health problems, Lenin redirected his interests from politics to nature. In 1991, Izvestiya TsK quoted Lenin’s words to his sister that she recorded in summer 1922: “If one cannot do politics one should do agriculture” (M. Ul’ianova 1991a: 183). In the following issue, in 1991, the journal wrote:

In mid June [1922], as soon as Vladimir Il’ich started getting up, he would say that it was important to breed rabbits in Gorki, using the territory surrounded by a net, where the previous [pre-Revolution] owners played lawn-tennis. Soon rabbits arrived. . . . At the same time Vladimir Il’ich was very interested in cultivating porcini mushrooms [belye griby]. . . . The first book that Vladimir Il’ich started reading when he was allowed to read, in late June 1922, was a book on cultivating champignons. The gardener was told to get acquainted with the book too and to start cultivating mushrooms in the Gorki estate. (M. Ul’ianova 1991b: 177).

The growing interest, around 1990–91, in Lenin’s medical condition, biological traits, and interest in nature was also manifested in other ways, including in how Lenin’s death was celebrated and discussed (Gooding 1992: 409). For decades, Lenin’s birthday, on April 22, was a national holiday marked with grand events around the country; the day of Lenin’s death on January 21 was commemorated on a much smaller scale.38 Most Soviet citizens did not even remember the exact date of Lenin’s death, while the date of his birthday everyone knew by heart from childhood. Central Soviet newspapers devoted full front pages to the occasion of Lenin’s birthday while there were few articles devoted to Lenin’s death, and most of them were hidden inside the paper. But on January 21, 1990, the relationship between the two dates reversed. Pravda, for the first time in decades devoted its full front page to the 66th anniversary of Lenin’s death. The somber style of the publication differed starkly from the canonical Soviet writings on Lenin. Under the title, “The memory of that January” (Pamiat’ o tom ianvare), Pravda published unprecedented witness accounts of Lenin’s final hours and death, full of unfamiliar naturalistic details. An excerpt from the memoir of Bonch-Bruevich described the sight of Lenin’s corpse: “The right hand is tightly clenched; a small bloodstain on the right ear holds our gaze. . . . Look, it seems that his eyes are opening. . . . The cheek is slightly trembling” (Pamiat’ o tom ianvare 1990).[183]

Natural Lenin

What united these different publications, around 1990, was their focus on a kind of “natural” Lenin—a figure that was located outside of language and politics, in the world of medical symptoms, natural phenomena, and death. The Party excised this figure from the Soviet political language and linguistic disorders made it unable to speak. Unlike the canonized Lenin of Soviet history, this natural figure had been unaffected by all the distortions and manipulations. But what this figure stood for was unknown and was therefore open to different interpretations. For the Party reformers, this natural Lenin was the purest manifestation that Lenin embodied the Truth naturally, by definition, even if he could not speak it. But for their opponents, this natural figure—with all its medical conditions and disorders—demonstrated that Lenin was damaged and flawed in his very essence, and that there was no real undistorted Lenin to return to.

New publications interpreted Lenin’s nature in these two increasingly divergent ways—as the natural embodiment of Truth or a site of innate imperfection. The Party reformers, in an attempt to demonstrate that Lenin’s nature was perfect, argued that even the strokes that he suffered at the end of his life had purely external causes. For their critics, on the other hand, the causes of the strokes were internal—they lay in Lenin’s genetic predisposition to high cholesterol.

In an attempt to counter this claim, Pravda published two long articles (November 1990) by surgeon Boris Petrovskii (Petrovskii 1990a, 1990b), a member of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences and former minister of public health. Petrovskii wrote: “Lenin certainly did not have the so-called inherited arteriosclerosis—an illness of much younger age.” The causes of his strokes were purely external. The first of these external causes was the exhaustion from the “superhuman mental activity” and “enormously hard labor” that Lenin endured while preparing the revolution. The second external cause was the two bullets that remained in Lenin’s body after the attempt on his life in 1918 (Petrovskii 1990b: 3). It was the exhaustion and the bullets that caused his arteriosclerotic “wounds.” The term wounds, as opposed to damages or defects was used by Petrovskii to underscore the external nature of the causes. An illustration in the article, entitled “A scheme of V. I. Lenin’s wounds” also presented arteriosclerotic clots in his brain and bullets in his body as similar kinds of wounds caused by external enemies (fig. 7).

Figure 7
Figure 7: “A scheme of V. I. Lenin’s wounds”. (Pravda, November 26, 1990)

In January 1991, the extremely popular Nezavisimaia gazeta speculated that blood vessels in Lenin’s brain could be damaged not by arteriosclerosis at all but by syphilis, which was presented by the paper as another “internal” cause since it pointed to Lenin’s deviant morality. There was no direct evidence that Lenin had syphilis, and the paper conducted its own investigation. For example, suggested the paper, Lenin could have contracted syphilis as a young man: “among students of Kazan University where Lenin studied venereal diseases were quite widespread” (Flerov 1991).39 Besides, at Kazan, Lenin was close to socialist and Marxist circles and their famous leader, a certain N. Motovilov, “who was the first person in Kazan [184]to concern himself with the plight of the proletariat,” had syphilis from young age. The paper also studied the list of Russian and foreign medics who were invited to Gorki to monitor Lenin’s condition after his third stroke in March 1923. Most of them “in one way or another were experts in treating long-term syphilis,” which indirectly points to the kind of “disease that they suspected” Lenin to have. Not every doctor in the team agreed with the syphilis theory. German neurologist Oscar Vogt,40 for example, doubted it, but the celebrated Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who had known Lenin personally for many years, believed that he had syphilis most of his adult life. Pavlov’s claim had been censored during the subsequent years, and based on the official autopsy reports most Soviet doctors had never doubted that Lenin’s strokes were caused by noninherent arteriosclerosis. However, continued the paper, “the syphilis of brain arteries often looks similar to arteriosclerosis” and only “a microscopic study” during autopsy could tell them apart, but such a study had never been conducted. If syphilis was indeed the culprit of Lenin’s brain disease, one could conclude that the true cause of his death was his deviant morality (an internal characteristic) (Flerov 1991).

With the turn to Lenin’s physiology and biology, his embalmed body in the mausoleum also became the focus of much debate. Debates on its fate—previously unthinkable—were now ubiquitous.41 Does it stand for a heroic revolution or a criminal regime? Should it remain on display in the mausoleum or be buried? These debates were part of a general trend in the countries of state socialism at the time–the trend that Katherine Verdery (1999) termed “the political life of dead [185]bodies.” Lenin’s body was part of this larger phenomenon, but it was also different than most other dead bodies because of its unique role as the foundational pillar of the Soviet system. It has been also in part for this reason that moving Lenin’s body out of the Mausoleum proved even more complicated than moving and reburying many other bodies.42

The focus on Lenin’s nature was also manifested in a growing interest in his ethnicity, another previously tabooed topic. Ethnicity was discussed in these debates as a dimension of biology. In May 1990, a popular weekly Argumenty i fakty, with the enormous circulation of 33.5 million,43 published an interview with Lenin’s elderly niece, Olga Ul’ianova. By that time, rumors that Lenin’s ethnicity could have been “not Russian,” contrary to the canonized narrative, had started circulating in the media, and the niece felt obliged to elaborate: “on the side of his father, Ilya Nikolaevich, the clan is Russian. Vladimir Il’ich and his sisters always wrote in all forms that they were Russian people and their native language was Russian. On the side of his mother, Maria Alexandrovna, I cannot say anything certain. She was also Russian, although there is an opinion that she had some Swedish blood. However, this has not been documented” (O. Ul’ianova 1990: 1).

In the fall of 1990, Leningrad newspaper Literator published an article about Lenin’s ethnicity with a telling title, “What secrets are still hidden in the Party archive” (Shtein 1990). The article was reprinted in the widely circulating Knizhnoe obozrenie (Kochergina 1991). And literary weekly Slovo printed another study by the same author, entitled “The leader’s kin” (Shtein 1991). Literator discovered that one of Lenin’s ancestors was a “glovemaker from Uppsala,” substantiating the earlier rumor about his Swedish lineage. Istoki, the journal of the Ul’ianovsk44 branch of the Central Lenin Museum, described a discovery that was made in its collections: among Lenin’s ancestors on his father’s side were Mongols who had settled in the town of Astrakhan in Southern Russia.

As a dimension of Lenin’s nature, his ethnicity invited conflicting interpretations. One of the most notorious and public examples was the documentary, The Russia that we lost,45 which director Stanlislav Govorukhin shot in 1990–91 and broadcast on Russian national television in early 1992 (Govorukhin 1992). The documentary set out to uncover every detail of Lenin’s family history. In one place, the narrator (director Govorukhin himself) said: “Lenin’s ethnic origin for a long time has been a deeply concealed secret. No wonder! There is enough in it to make any faithful communist faint.” Sitting in the State Archive of the Russian Empire in Leningrad with archival documents spread out on a desk in front of him, Govorukhin explained: “On the side of his father, Ilya Nikolaevich, Lenin’s grandmother . . . was Kalmyk and Lenin’s grandfather . . . was Chuvash. The side of Lenin’s mother is even trickier [khitree]. . . . Lenin’s grandmother, Anna Grushorb, [186]was German with some Swedish blood. Lenin’s grandfather—attention anti-Semites! [Govorukhin made a dramatic pause]—Alexandr Blank was Jewish.”

Lenin’s grandfather, Blank, explained the narrator, studied at the State Medical Department. But the book of records of that department, located in the State Archive of the Russian Empire in Leningrad, was missing four pages. “It took us half a year to locate these pages,” said Govorukhin.46 He discovered that they had been withdrawn from the imperial archive after Lenin’s death and hidden in a secret file in the Party archive in Moscow. The pages became accessible to the film crew only after the failed hardliner Communist coup in August 1991. Filming in the Party archive, Govorukhin continued his narrative: “So, what was the awful secret that the Party was hiding from its members? It was a document explaining the origin of the Christened Jews with the family name Blank. The document reads: ‘Information about the graduates of the Imperial Medical Academy of Surgery, Jewish children Dmitrii and Alexander Blank, who had converted to Christianity.’ . . . Brothers Abel and Israel Blank were christened under the names of Dmitrii and Alexander. They converted to Christianity involuntarily [Govorukhin stressed that word] because Jews were not accepted into the institutions of higher learning.”

If the tone of this investigation was openly anti-Semitic, its political implication went further: the truth of Lenin’s ethnicity, it claimed, had been concealed throughout the Soviet history in order to hide the fact that Lenin’s real nature was flawed and impure.

How sacred was Lenin?

Let us stress again that the changes in the figure of “Lenin” that we have traced so far did not originate from the critical attacks on Lenin by his opponents and dissidents. As we have seen, critical anti-Leninist voices did emerge during that period. However, they were able to become public and assertive by the end of perestroika because of the changes that had been first introduced by the Party reformers who genuinely saw themselves as Leninists and thought that they were finally returning to real Lenin. But the efforts of these reformers led to unexpected results, undermining the pivotal political role that the figure of Lenin played in the Soviet system. The reformers’ location inside the symbolic dimension made it difficult for them to grasp in full how the Soviet figure of “Lenin” was constructed and what role it played in that system. Our analysis so far has not quite unpacked these two questions either. How, in fact, was the figure of Lenin constructed? Why was that figure subverted when the reformers tried to rejuvenate it? And why did the collapse of the Soviet system quickly follow? To answer these questions it is helpful to consider the political status of “Lenin” through a more precise theoretical lens.

In the analyses of the Soviet system it is not uncommon to employ quasi-religious terms—for example, when referring to “Lenin cult,” calling Communism and Leninism “political religions,” comparing the Communist Party to a “sect” or “church,” et cetera (see, for example, Tumarkin 1983; Kula 2005; Gentile 2006; Slezkine 2017; Plamper 2012; Breslauer 2017). In her pioneering study of Lenin [187]cult, historian Nina Tumarkin (1983) linked its emergence to Russia’s popular religious culture and compared the role of Lenin’s embalmed body to that of religious relics. Benno Ennker (2011) critiqued Tumarkin’s approach for essentializing stereotypes about Russian culture and downplaying the struggle for political power in the Party that was central in constructing “Lenin” as an object of devotion. Ennker’s point is well taken, but his own approach could be also critiqued for attributing an overly “pragmatic” and “secularized” political rationale to the Bolshevik leaders and ignoring their messianic views (see Hellbeck 2001). In fact, “Lenin cult” cannot be reduced to either a religious or a secular phenomenon. The very opposition between the two in the analysis of this “cult” seems flawed.

Soviet political language indeed commonly referred to Lenin as sviashchennyi, sacred. However, the meaning of this term, like that of English “sacred,” far exceeds the sphere of religion, making it different from the related term sviatoi, and its English counterpart “holy,” both of which have strong religious connotations. Lenin was sviashchennyi but not sviatoi.47 A widespread confusion between such paired terms in European languages is related to what Talal Asad called the modern tendency to create an opposition between “sacred” and “secular.” This opposition, according to Asad, originated in the “late nineteenth-century anthropological and theological thought” that translated different meanings of “sacredness” from around the world by one term sacred, and then united them “into a single immutable essence [that it claimed] to be the object of a universal human experience called ‘religious’” (Asad 2003: 31). As a result, a great cultural and political area of sacredness that exists beyond religion became obscured. A common misreading of “totalitarianism” as a quasi-religious phenomenon is a manifestation of this tendency.48 The term sviashchennyi, similarly, should not be understood in terms of this opposition. Consider how this term was used in relation to Lenin in the Soviet political discourse a decade or two before perestroika:

“. . . the duty of all communists is to stride together along Lenin’s path (leninskii put’) . . . toward the victory of the sacred cause (sviashchennoe delo) of socialism and communism.”49

“. . . the sacred duty (sviashchennyi dolg) of the communists of all socialist countries is to strictly follow . . . Lenin’s directives (zavety Lenina)” (Brezhnev 1972: 362).

“. . . on behalf of Krasnoyarsk communists and workers we assure you . . . that we will continue to strictly follow the sacred directives (sviashchennye zavety) of the great Lenin (velikogo Lenina).”50[188]

Here, “Lenin’s path,” “Lenin’s directives,” and the “cause of socialism and communism,” all of which are synonyms, are sacred and following them is a sacred duty. What makes them “sacred” is that they are articulated in Lenin’s voice and therefore are unquestionable, foundational, and true by definition.

So, what was the origin of Lenin’s sacredness? It was the banning of some parts of Lenin’s thought and canonization of others that produced Lenin as the sacred figure.51 As we saw earlier, during the final months of his life the ailing Lenin was isolated from the political world, while the Party leadership was busy constructing a new canonized image of Lenin. At that time, Lenin was often unable to edit his earlier texts, change his earlier positions, and make his opinions known. Many facts of his personal life, medical condition, and family history were suppressed or distorted. At the same time, in January 1923, one year prior to Lenin’s death and despite his objections, the term “Leninism” was introduced into public circulation52 and “the leading party propagandists started insisting on the necessity to pledge party allegiance to it” (Ennker 2011: 75; also Tumarkin 1983: 132). In March 1923, the newly established Lenin Institute53 began collecting “Lenin’s every word,” while at the same time much of what Lenin was saying and writing after the fall of 1922 was pointedly erased from that image. Soon after Lenin’s death, the Party leadership took control of how he was depicted in visuals and monuments and in stories and poems, actively constructing Lenin as a canonical object of political iconography that was connected with “the real living Lenin’’ only superficially (Ennker 2011: 84). “Most mythological images and institutions that were formed around Lenin’s cult were created” during those final months of Lenin’s life and the first few years after his death (Ennker 2011: 66).

From that time and throughout Soviet history, real Lenin was doubled—that is, split into one figure that was canonized in Soviet political discourse and another figure that was banished from that discourse. The sacred figure of Lenin was produced by these two simultaneous processes of canonization and banishment (see Yurchak 2015: 122). His sacredness was manifested as a doubled relation to the political.

Constructing sacredness as a doubled political relation is not uniquely Soviet. In the 1920s, English historian William Warde Fowler argued that the term sacre (sacred) in its original use in the ancient Roman state designated people and things that were moved by the action of the state from “the region of the profanum . . . into that of the sacrum” (Fowler [1911] 1920: 15, quoted in Asad 2003: 30). Sacrum was a political space with a special status: the people and things located there were directly dedicated to God, without the recourse to the state’s legal laws and procedures. This made them sacred, which in practice was expressed in one of two ways—they were either inviolable (the state’s law could not touch them) or open to [189]violence with impunity (the state’s law could not protect them). Building on Fowler’s analysis, Giorgio Agamben rearticulated the meaning of sacre in terms of political exception.54 To be sacred in the Roman context, he argues, meant to be in a relation of exception to the political space of the state (Agamben 1998: 74). Two types of subjects occupied that exceptional position: the “sovereign” and the “sacred man” (whom Agamben calls by its Roman name homo sacer). The sovereign was above the law: in an emergency, that figure had the power to suspend the law to protect the state’s sovereign territory and status (see also Schmitt 1985). The sacred man was below the law: he/she was banished from the political sphere of the state to an exceptional zone where his or her life was reduced to “bare life” (the life of a human being that lost political recognition and was no longer protected by law).55 In extreme circumstances “sacred man” could be even killed without this act legally constituting murder.

In a recent paper, I discussed the nature of Lenin’s embalmed body that has been displayed in the mausoleum in Moscow since 1924 by considering the unusual biomedical science that has developed around this project (Yurchak 2015). Drawing on the work of Ernst Kantorowicz (1957), that paper demonstrated that Lenin’s body had been doubled internally into mortal body (Lenin’s natural corpse) and immortal body (Lenin’s constructed effigy). The current essay argues in a similar fashion that “Lenin” as a politically sacred figure of the Soviet polity was also doubled internally—into “canonized Lenin” (the sovereign, who was above Soviet language and law, that is, could not be questioned by them, and whose voice articulated the foundational Truth of that polity) and “banished Lenin” (homo sacer, who was excised from political discourse, was below language and law, and whose words, ideas, and facts of life were censored, distorted, and tabooed).

In their search for real Lenin, the reformers of perestroika eventually confronted the fact that the constructed figure of sacred Lenin played two roles at once: as a subject whose voice articulated the unquestionable Truth (was above language) and a subject who was unable or forbidden to speak at all (was below language). Being the voice of Truth and being speechless turned out to be two sides of the same coin. Or, to put it differently, the Truth that Lenin’s voice represented was not yet [190]articulated in language, like empty sound that has the potentiality to signify but does not yet signify.

This view of Lenin’s political sacredness allows us to reconsider some examples that were discussed earlier. When the perestroika reformers claimed that it was necessary to “let Lenin speak” again, without knowing what he would say (see poster, fig. 4), they focused not on any concrete words and thoughts of Lenin but on his empty voice—the voice of Truth that was unmodified by language and devoid of speech.56 When the reformers argued that the Party needed to speak on behalf of Lenin (see the discussion of ventriloquism, above) they also focused on Lenin’s empty voice. The Party was invited to say new things in Lenin’s voice; this voice functioned as the empty “vocalization” of Truth, before linguistic articulation was added to it. The reformers also sought to reproduce Lenin’s handwriting (see the discussions of fig. 5 and 6), paying less attention to the written text from which the handwritten word came. The role of Lenin’s handwriting was similar to that of his voice—it represented Truth before it was articulated in concrete language.

The very association of “Lenin’s voice” with unquestionable Truth was preconditioned on a prelinguistic “emptiness” of this voice, which allowed one later to endow it with different articulations and meanings. When Suslov used Lenin’s quotes to mean any number of things and justify any number of messages (see the discussion of Suslov’s collection of quotes, above), he treated these quotes as an enunciation of the “empty” voice of Truth, available to be endowed with new meanings. However, when the “emptiness” of Lenin’s voice was publically exposed during perestroika, it became apparent that Lenin’s real words and thoughts could be seen as an a priori manifestation of Truth only if they had been distorted first. The real, authentic, undistorted Lenin to whom the Party strove to return in those years, in fact was an artificially constructed subject with an empty voice, a subject who dwelled outside of language, above it and below it, among silent monuments to canonized Lenin and mushrooms that the banished Lenin liked to cultivate at the end of his life.

Every mushroom knows its time

As it frequently happens, it was an artist who exposed the drama of that final revelation of perestroika before it had been registered in laws and institutions. On May 17, 1991, a remarkable event took place on national television, in a popular program Tikhii Dom57 that specialized in discussing unknown facts of Soviet history. The host, a popular young journalist Sergei Sholokhov introduced his guest, Sergei Kurekhin, as a historian and filmmaker. Most viewers had never heard of [191]Kurekhin at that time and did not realize that in addition to being an extraordinary pianist he was also an outrageous social provocateur of the Leningrad art scene. During the one-hour television program, Kurekhin spoke eloquently, intelligently, earnestly, and with a great air of expertise about “previously unknown secrets” of Lenin’s nature and their effects on Soviet history.58

Drawing on an impressive wealth of materials, Kurekhin explained that Lenin, like most Russians, was a great lover of wild mushrooms and regularly picked them in the forests with his revolutionary comrades. It is often forgotten, Kurekhin pointed out, that some Russian mushrooms have strong hallucinogenic properties, which Russian peasants had known and used for centuries. For example, the effect of the fly agaric mushroom (mukhomor) on human consciousness is comparable to that of the Mexican cactus peyote.59 If a person consumes Russian mushrooms for many years, continued Kurekhin, “the personality of that individual is being gradually displaced by that of a mushroom.” He quoted from philosophical treatises, showed scholarly diagrams, and mentioned various scientific facts, both real and fake. He also showed prerecorded interviews with real scientists-mycologists that he conducted beforehand and excerpts from real historical documentaries about Lenin. Kurekhin concluded his lecture with a famous statement: “I have absolutely irrefutable evidence that the October Revolution was carried out by people who had been consuming certain mushrooms for many years . . . [and that these] mushrooms had been displacing their personalities. . . . In other words, I simply want to say that Lenin was a mushroom.”

Despite the outrageousness of this claim, Kurekhin’s brilliant and earnest performance confused many viewers, who failed to recognize the program as an artistic hoax. Some people even started calling the studio for an explanation.60 Kurekhin’s parody was designed not simply to ridicule Lenin, Soviet history, or the audience, but rather to make visible the striking inversion that occurred at the end of Soviet history: the real, authentic “Lenin” to whom the Party wanted to return by refusing the previously canonized figure of Lenin as a distortion, in fact, turned out to be an empty political construct that lacked language and meaning. “Real Lenin” was a mushroom—or, at least, this was not too far from what the perestroika reformers had discovered as a result of their efforts.

Kurekhin’s revelation was comic, making many people laugh, but it was also tragic. It made visible to everyone that the foundational Truth of the Soviet project was empty. Now everything that had been previously unquestionable in the political language of the system could be questioned—the idea of communism, the leading role of the Party, the reason for the Soviet state to exist at all. This rupture in the [192]symbolic dimension of the political rendered all other crises that existed in various areas of Soviet life at once profound and constitutive of the collapse. A mighty sovereign state and a momentous historical project imploded. The failed coup of the Party and state “hardliners,” in August 1991, was the final convulsion of the collapsing system. For the state, it took a few more months to retroactively represent its own end in formal terms. On November 6, 1991, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was officially banned. On December 25, 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was disbanded. The Soviet “Leninist” history was over. This was not the end of Lenin as a non-Soviet symbol, of course, but this is another story.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1991. Language and death: The place of negativity. Translated by Karen Pinkus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 1998. Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Le canon et le champignon: Lénine, le sacré et l’effondrement soviétique

Résumé : Cet essai étudie la transformation paradoxale du discours idéologique soviétique qui s’est produit à la toute fin de la perestroika, vers 1990-1991. La tentative du Parti de régénérer l’idéologie soviétique en revenant au discours originel de Lénine eut, de façon surprenante, l’effet inverse. La Vérité externe et incontestable de laquelle l’idéologie soviétique dérivait sa légitimité - qui avait toujours été identique aux mots de Lénine - devint soudainement inaccessible. Cette transformation déclencha la démise rapide du projet communiste soviétique. Au cœur de cette transformation inattendue figure la quête du véritable Lénine - un Lénine que les théoriciens du parti soviétique, les bureaucrates, les historiens et les scientifiques espéraient toujours caché parmi les textes non publiés et les informations inconnues sur sa biologie, sa vie, sa mort.

Alexei YURCHAK is professor in the Department of Anthropology and Core Faculty Member in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His book Everything was forever, until it was no more: The last Soviet generation (Princeton University Press, 2006) won the 2007 Vucinich Book Prize from the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies for the best book of the year. The Russian version of the book, which he rewrote and expanded, received the 2014 Enlightener Award for the best nonfiction book of the year in Russia. He is currently working on a book on Lenin’s body, the Mausoleum Lab, and the intersection of the political and biochemical knowledge in the production of the Soviet communist project.

Alexei Yurchak
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley
232 Kroeber Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-3710

2017–2018 Fellow
Institut d’études Avancées de Paris
17 quai d’Anjou
75004 Paris


1. “Lenin Street” is a song by popular St. Petersburg punk band Nol’ (Zero) from their 1991 album, “Songs about my love for the motherland.” The original lyrics are “Prosto ia zhivu na ulitse Lenina, i menia zarubaet vremia ot vremeni” (all translations are mine unless otherwise noted).

2. Some scholars have questioned the term collapse for its emphasis on the structural and institutional aspects of that event, instead preferring to call it “the end” (see, for example, Cohen 2004; Young 2007). Others emphasize the continuity of certain Soviet elites, institutions, and practices into the post-Soviet period. Although both these positions provide an important critical perspective, I prefer to use the term collapse for its emphasis on the radical rupture in the political, ideological, and symbolic institutions of the Soviet state at the end of 1991. While many Soviet elites reproduced themselves in the post-Soviet period (see Kryshtanovskaya and White 1996), this happened under radically new conditions, with the project of building communism unequivocally gone.

3. October 1917 according to the older Julian calendar (which was used in Russia until 1918).

4. Although the final legal disintegration of the Soviet state followed a month later, in mid-December 1991, it was the end of the Communist Party that spelled the official end of the Soviet project.

5. Andrei Amalrik’s 1969 essay, “Will the USSR survive until 1984?,” in which he claimed that the Soviet Union could collapse in the mid-1980s, was an exception that proved the general rule. Most Soviet dissidents and Western Sovietologists at the time dismissed Amalrik’s argument as unrealistic and unscientific. For a discussion of the unexpectedness of the Soviet collapse and a sense that the Soviet Union was “eternal,” see Yurchak (2006).

6. As Ken Jowitt remarked, “had Andropov been a healthy man . . . [the Soviet Union] could have gone on for another twenty years. It had the world’s third largest economy, thermonuclear weapons, second strike, all of these magical things” (Jowitt 2000).

7. In his theorization of the symbolic, Lefort drew on French anthropology, especially the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his student Pierre Clastres, and later on, Jacques Lacan (see Moyn 2012).

8. See also a comprehensive discussion of many different interpretations of the Soviet collapse in Jane Zavisca (2011) and Richard Sakwa (2013).

9. See also Stephen Kotkin (2001).

10. Lefort critiqued orthodox Marxism for failing to recognize the constitutive role of representations in the formation and regulation of societies and for collapsing the symbolic onto the ideological (Lefort 1986: 194; see also Moyn 2012). Lefort’s use of the symbolic is substantially different, for example, from Lacan’s (see Breckman 2012: 32).

11. I use the name “Leninism” also to refer to Marxism-Leninism. Although technically these terms are not synonyms, in practice, Marxism at the level of the official Party ideology and language was reduced to its Leninist interpretation.

12. Stalin was called “the Great continuator of Lenin’s cause” rather than the originator of a different cause. Stalin depended on “Lenin” as the source of his own legitimacy and could not supersede Lenin as the locus of Truth. This argument counters the view that Stalin superseded Lenin, as argued, for example, in Plamper (2012: 85; see also Yurchak 2006, chapter 2).

13. RGANI, f. 2, op. 1, d. 749, l. 78.

14. In the late 1980s, exhibitions of political posters attracted enormous crowds of visitors (see Vashchuk 2013: 156–58).

15. Figures 2 and 3 were “authorial posters,” first demonstrated at the exhibition Perestroika and us, in June 1988.

16. Since I have been unable to find page numbers of this publication, I am also providing another edition with page numbers (Medvedeva 1991: 164).

17. Similar to the above footnote, I am providing the following citation (Mel’nichenko 1991: 140).

18. Similar to the above footnote, I am providing the following citation (Kosolapov 1991: 151).

19. On the shift of focus in the Leninist party discourse from semantic meaning to the reproduction of form (which I call “performative shift”), see Yurchak (2006) and (2014).

20. Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich—both members of the Politburo under Stalin. Dmitri Shepilov—Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs and member of the Central Committee under Khrushchev.

21. Dmitry Ustinov—Soviet Minister of Defense and member of the Politburo under Brezhnev; Efim Slavsky—Minister of the Nuclear Industry and a member of the Central Committee.

22. Andrei Kirilenko, Viktor Grishin, and Nikolai Tikhonov—all members of the Politburo under Brezhnev.

23. Suslov started his collection of Lenin’s quotes in the mid-1930s in his dormitory room, as a graduate student at the Economics Institute of Red Professors in Moscow. Lev Mekhlis, Suslov’s classmate at the university, later became Stalin’s Secretary and brought Suslov into the inner circle of the leader when Stalin was impressed with his ability to find appropriate Lenin’s quotes for any occasion (Tel’man 2011).

24. In my earlier book, I focus on Komsomol Secretaries Alexandr (from the remote provincial town of Yakutsk) and Andrei from Leningrad, who were both faithful Komsomol activists and passionate believers in Communism, and who were engaged in creative critique of the Party policies in the sphere of youth culture by drawing on Lenin (Yurchak 2006, chapters 3 and 6). See also the discussion of a “creative bureaucrat” in the Party’s Central Committee in Caroline Humphrey (2008). Humphrey also shows that many creative ideas that Gorbachev later launched as part of his reforms of perestroika originated in such critical thinking of Party bureaucrats in the previous decades.

25. Mikhail Bakhtin called this type of discourse authoritative (Bakhtin 1981: 342–44) and anthropologist Greg Urban termed the shift of discourse, when the form becomes frozen and is copied intact among contexts, transduction (Urban 1996: 40). On the similarity and difference between transduction and performative shift see Yurchak (2006: 26).

26. Discussion on the Russian blog devoted to memories of the Soviet past; this quote comes from a memory entered by Pokhmelizator (Verner 2011).

27. See Yurchak (2006, 2014).

28. Nina Tumarkin (1983: 75) and Benno Ennker (2011: 123) offer a different genealogy of the term “Leninism,” however both arguing that it was invented and publicly launched by the Bolshevik ideologues in 1923, one year prior to Lenin’s death.

29. It was established in March 1923 as Lenin Institute, later it became the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, and was closed down in 1991 when the Communist Party was outlawed and the Soviet state collapsed.

30. Lenin i teper’ zhivee vsekh zhivykh.

31. Esli by Lenin byl zhiv, on by znal chto delat’.

32. The photograph depicts “Lenin at the meeting of the 3rd Commintern Congress, June–July 1921, Moscow”; available at Lenin: Revolutsioner, myslitel’, chekovek online collection, http://leninism.su/fotogalereya/1921/v-i-lenin-13-120.html#joomimg.

33. The design remained the same from 1923 to 1990 but its name changed: from 1923 to 1952 it was called Bolshevik, and from 1952 to 1991 it was called Kommunist. Both names were printed in the same heavy font. Since 1992, the journal has been published under the name Svobodnaia mysl’ (Free Thought) and is no longer affiliated with the Communist Party.

34. This shift away from dead Lenin to living Lenin was also reflected in the dynamic style of the cover design as a whole, which included the diagonal orientation of the title name, as if it was handwritten in one fast stroke across the page (the way approving resolutions are often written on documents), the gradual change of the color saturation in the background, the disappearance from the cover of the slogan “Workers of the world unite!” and the Order of Lenin (both representing the frozen form of canonized Leninism), and the substitution of the Soviet style of marking the date and issue number (“N. 5, 1990”) with a new, informal style borrowed from Western publications (“5’90”).

35. In fact, Gramsci knew Lenin’s work well, and Lenin also knew and admired Gramsci. At the Second Congress of the Comintern, in July 1920, Lenin endorsed the group of young Italian communists including Gramsci, who ran the newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo, for a close similarity of their political position with that of the Bolsheviks (Rose 2013). On October 25, 1922, Lenin and Gramsci met in person and had a long conversation in Lenin’s office in the Kremlin (Gramsci 2016: 72). During perestroika, returning to that conversation became particularly important, since in October 1922, Lenin had already been isolated from the Party leadership and his opinions from that time became heavily censored in the later accounts of Soviet “Leninism.”

36. This publication reproduced an earlier Russian-language version of the text that appeared in 1986 in a Paris-based Russian language press, Atheneum, under the name Petrenko (pseudonym of historian Boris Ravdin). But a wider Soviet audience did not see the text until it was reprinted in Russia in 1990 by popular Znanie-sila.

37. Soviet narodnykh komissarov (Council of People’s Commisars).

38. During the first thirty years after Lenin’s death the anniversary of his death was marked as a much bigger event than his birthday. But on January 11, 1955, after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s cult the Central Committee adopted a resolution moving the celebration of Lenin’s anniversary to his birthday (Tumarkin 1983: 257).

39. The article first appeared in 1987 in the Russian language journal Grani, published in West Germany (Flerov 1987).

40. Later Vogt became the first director of Moscow Institute of Brain where he studied the brains of Lenin and other Soviet dignitaries (see Spivak 2009; Bogolepova and Bogolepov 2004). Vogt’s skepticism about the theory of Lenin’s alleged syphilis might have contributed to his appointment by the Bolshevik government as the head of Moscow Brain institute.

41. In this essay, I am not discussing these debates any further for reasons of space. However, I discussed them to an extent in an earlier work (Yurchak 2015) and analyze them at far greater length in a book on Lenin’s body, which is under preparation.

42. See Susan Gal (1991); István Rév (1995), Katherine Verdery (1999); Maria Todorova (2006).

43. That year, the paper was entered into the Guinness book of records as the highest circulating paper in the world.

44. Formerly Simbirsk, the birthplace of Lenin.

45. Rossiia kotoruiu my poteriali

46. On these documents, see also Slezkine (2004: 245).

47. The misinterpretation of sviashchennyi in terms of holiness is quite widespread—for example, the Russian phrase sviashchennaia voina (“sacred war,” in reference to the Soviet part of WWII) is occasionally mistranslated as “holy war.”

48. There even exists an academic journal with the name Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions.

49. “Doklad tovarishcha L. I. Brezhneva.” Pravda, April 22, 1970: 4.

50. “General’nomu sekretariu Tsentral’nogo Komiteta Kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo Soiuza tovarishchu Leonidu Il’ichu Brezhnevu,” Krasnoiarskii rabochii, December 19, 1976: 2.

51. For a detailed discussion of this dual process see Yurchak (2015).

52. There are several contradictory theories on the origin of the term “Leninism” (see footnote 25). However, regardless of the origin, the Party accepted it as an official doctrinal term in 1922.

53. Later it became known as “Institute of Marxism-Leninism.” It was closed down in late 1991, when the Soviet state collapsed (see footnote 26).

54. Like Asad, Agamben argues that sacred originated as a non-religious category, acquiring strong religious connotation only much later. However, while Asad traces the development of that religious interpretation of the sacred to nineteenth-century anthropology and theology, Agamben traces it to medieval Christian thought.

55. Agamben’s use of bare life (in Greek zoe) is ambiguous. Sometimes he reduces it to pure biological existence, as in “natural life,” while at other times, he refers to it as human life that has been stripped of political significance and that, unlike pure biological existence, remains included in the legal regime of the state through “inclusive exclusion.” In fact, only the second definition accurately refers to “bare life” (see Laclau 2007: 19 for a critique). For example, in the contemporary United States, an inmate who is sentenced to capital punishment and can be legally executed is still protected against illegal treatment (torture, starvation, uncontrolled murder). A patient in a deeply comatose state “of no return” is also protected against illegal treatment but can be legally disconnected from the life support machine. Both are excluded from the political community through exceptional inclusion in it.

56. Compare with the discussion of empty voice in Daniel McLoughlin (2010) and Giorgio Agamben (1991: 43) and of acousmatic voice (voice without a visible source) in Michel Chion (1999).

57. Tikhii Dom (Quiet house) was a program of interviews hosted by Sergei Sholokhov. It operated as part of Piatoe koleso (The fifth wheel) program on the 5th Channel of Leningrad Television between late perestroika and 1992 and was broadcast nationally. After 1992, it moved to Moscow’s RTR channel as an independent program.

58. For a detailed analysis of that event, see Yurchak (2011).

59. Hallucinogenic properties of Mexican peyote were well known to Yaqui and Navajo Indians. Kurekhin first read about them in the mid-1980s, in the samizdat translations of the book by Mexican American anthropologist Carlos Castaneda (Castaneda [1968] 1985). Of course, Kurekhin conveniently failed to mention that fly agaric mushrooms are not considered eatable in Russia and would never be consumed by regular mushroom lovers, like Lenin.

60. See detailed account in Yurchak (2011).