Sacred necropolitics

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Anya Bernstein, Alexei Yurchak. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.022


Sacred necropolitics

A dialogue on Alexei Yurchak’s essay, “The canon and the mushroom: Lenin, sacredness, and Soviet collapse”

Anya BERNSTEIN, Harvard University

Alexei YURCHAK, University of California, Berkeley

In this meditation, Anya Bernstein and Alexei Yurchak discuss Yurchak’s essay, “The canon and the mushroom: Lenin, sacredness, and Soviet collapse,” which is published in the current issue. They elaborate on some points in the essay that are central for the understanding of the figure of “Lenin” and its role in Soviet history, take them in new directions, and link them to other topics that are relevant to anthropology. The themes discussed include sacredness and blasphemy; death, resurrection, and immortality; language, intentionality, and responsibility; voice, ventriloquism, and truth; and more.

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

Anya Bernstein:

In his essay, Alexei Yurchak provides an anthropological analysis of the symbolic dimensions of the Soviet collapse, focusing on the figure of Lenin and the categories of truth and the sacred. My focus in this commentary is on the latter as it pertains to the politics around Lenin’s legacy, including his embalmed body. Since the 1990s we have seen postsocialist bodies being moved around, exhumed, and reburied, while Lenin continues to lie in his mausoleum in the Red Square. While in this piece Yurchak does not address specifically why the necropolitics around Lenin’s body turned out so different from other postsocialist bodies (Gal 1991; Todorova 2011; Verdery 1999; see also Yurchak 2015a), he does raise the issue in the second half of the article of the alleged sacredness of Lenin’s body. In this he is invoking the [200]figure of homo sacer, as elaborated by Giorgio Agamben, who pointed to parallels between the sacred and the sovereign in the sense of both being in some way beyond the law: one is banished from the political and the other transcends it through the power to establish the state of exception (Agamben 1998; Schmitt [1932] 1995).

If Lenin’s body is sacred, argues Yurchak, it is not because there is something essentially “holy” about it. Nor is the “worship” of Lenin to be likened to the veneration of religious relics in Russian Orthodox Christianity, as it has been in the scholarship (Tumarkin 1997). Lenin’s body is first of all political. And if it is sacred, it is so not in the sense of being religious but in this original political sense. Developing Agamben’s analogy, Yurchak argues that Lenin’s body was “doubled internally” into a “canonized” Lenin holding the sovereign prerogative to Truth and a “banished” Lenin, whose writings were regularly excised, rewritten, distorted, and censored.

This argument provides a fresh perspective on long-standing comparisons between communism and religion. It has been commonly asserted—by academic scholars and journalists alike—that Soviet communism was a secular religion with its own rituals, icons, and religious texts. In this context, Lenin’s body was portrayed as a central material relic created for the “backward masses” to worship in place of the bodily remains of Orthodox saints. Early Soviet atheist activists had indeed worked to discredit religious belief by tearing open the saints’ caskets to demonstrate that the relics either possessed no special powers or—as was sometimes the case—were not even there. Activists toured villages using simple chemistry experiments to show how Orthodox icons could be made to appear to weep. The Lenin “miracle,” as this argument would have it, lay in the power of science, which some believed could one day even “resurrect” Lenin from his bodily remains (as influential nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov and his twentieth-century followers envisioned would eventually happen for every human; Fedorov 1906, 1913).

Yet, as Yurchak convincingly argues, the story is much more complex than the Orthodox relics simply being replaced by Lenin’s body. As he points out in another recent piece (Yurchak 2015a), it was never a goal of Lenin’s embalmers for him to be “resurrected,” as they actually preserved little of his original materiality, removing all organs—including the brain, which was dissected and studied in a research institute created for that purpose. Any sacredness to be attributed to Lenin’s body must thus derive from something altogether different than what operates in the case of holy relics. Pointing out that the Russian language has two words that can be translated as “sacred,” sviatoi (holy) and sviashchennyi (sacred), Yurchak notes that Lenin’s body is most commonly referred to as sviashchennyi and not as sviatoi. Indeed, while sviatoi appears to be used primarily in religious contexts, sviashchennyi does appear in ostensibly “secular” situations.

Since this linguistic distinction is central to Yurchak’s argument, two points need to be made. First, more etymological detail is called for to establish the exact provenance of the distinction in Russian as well as to determine contemporary usage. Second, the analysis might benefit from considering another linguistic doubling related to the notion of sacredness in Russian. At issue here is not the sacred itself but its inverted image or negation that is invoked in the reemergence of blasphemy in postsocialist Russia as a site of moral anxiety. During the Soviet period, the term blasphemy was rarely heard, reentering broad public discourse only during the art [201]trials of the Putin era and the famous Pussy Riot trial of 2012, generating considerable confusion as to its precise meaning.1 The new so-called blasphemy laws in Russia were roundly condemned in the Euro-American media, while going unnoted amid all the attention was that blasphemy is glossed in Russian by two different words: bogokhul’stvo and koshchunstvo. Twentieth-century sources define the verb bogokhul’stvovat’ (to commit blasphemy) as “to desecrate or offend church relics (relikvii) and rituals.”2 Koshchunstvo, in contrast, while also translated as blasphemy, refers to any kind of mocking of anything considered sacred or precious—not necessarily pertaining to religion.3

Working in Russia on related issues, I raised the question with all of my interlocutors, asking how they understood the difference between koshchunstvo and bogokhul’stvo. The majority defined bogokhul’stvo as a form of religious impiety, with the most common examples being the desecration of icons and speaking with contempt of religious notions and persons. Koshchunstvo, on the other hand, suggested a lack of reverence toward a different kind of sacred, leaving my interlocutors struggling to define exactly what counts as an instance. Reaching for appropriate examples, they came up with one with impressive regularity. “Imagine if someone drew horns on a portrait of Lenin during the Soviet times,” ventured one interlocutor. “People would be outraged: ‘How dare you commit such a blasphemy (koshchunstvo)?! This is Lenin! (Eto zhe Lenin!).’” Likewise, the specter of koshchunstvo is commonly invoked in contemporary public discourses around the fate of Lenin’s body. The leader of the Communist Party Gennadii Ziuganov declared the idea of taking Lenin out of mausoleum and burying him a blasphemy (koshchunstvo). Others consider Lenin remaining in the mausoleum a blasphemy (koshchunstvo). Still others regard Putin’s controversial recent comparison of Lenin’s body with Orthodox holy relics a blasphemy (koshchunstvo) in its own right.4 Common to all of these examples is that no one ever applies the formal [202]ecclesiastical term bogokhul’stvo to Lenin, illustrating precisely what Yurchak argues in his piece: Lenin’s body continues to occupy an area of cultural and political sacredness located outside of what is conventionally understood as “religious,” marking a distinction that is often obscured in readings of Soviet cultural politics.

What might be the source and nature of such sacredness? Following Agamben, Yurchak argues that the answer lies in the political exception, as he points out, “Lenin was simultaneously the unquestionable voice of Truth (above language) and was unable or forbidden to speak at all (below language).” The “real” Lenin to which the Party was occasionally determined to return was not only beyond politics but also beyond language, as his voice could only be heard when the Party spoke on his behalf—which, as Yurchak suggests, could be regarded as a kind of ventriloquism. The real Lenin thus was “a subject with an empty voice,” dwelling in the intermittently rewritten and banished texts as well as in his embalmed body with no organs. Not only were Lenin’s texts regularly distorted and his body deprived of its original materiality and artificially recreated and maintained using sophisticated chemical manipulations (Yurchak 2015a), his mind, as artist-provocateur Sergei Kurekhin asserted on Russian national television in 1991, was also distorted by . . . a mushroom. Using the elaborately staged hoax to great comic effect, Yurchak aptly illustrates how the “true” Lenin could be rewritten, obscured, and even entirely displaced by a nonhuman species (Yurchak 2015a, 2011).

Anthropologists, of course, will be very familiar with the kind of mushroom, which Kurekhin claimed to have replaced Lenin—a mushroom with its own kind of sacred agency. Prior to his television appearance, Kurekhin had gone to Mexico, learning about hallucinogenic cacti and mushrooms traditionally used in indigenous shamanic rituals. It was hardly an original pursuit, as ever since the late 1950s Mexico has experienced a long string of Western seekers of psychedelically inspired shamanic wisdom.

Nor was there any need for Kurekhin to have gone as far as Mexico. Almost a century earlier, a Russian anthropologist had pioneered the study of hallucinogenic mushrooms in shamanic rituals in Siberia. During his 1900–1902 expedition, the celebrated Russian scholar Waldemar Jochelson observed the use of fly agaric mushrooms in shamanic rituals among the indigenous Koryaks. The shaman was essentially a ventriloquist, Jochelson famously asserted. When asked to sing into a phonograph the shaman had become powerless in front of the unfamiliar technology. Only upon subsequently consuming two fungi was he able to sing (Jochelson [1905] 1908). If the sacred agency of mushrooms empowered the shaman to ventriloquize the spirits, what was it that enabled the Party and the latter-day Soviet reformers to ventriloquize Lenin? As per Yurchak, it was the essential “political sacredness” of Lenin, as he was both canonized and banished, a homo sacer and the sovereign, the voice of truth and an empty voice. If Lenin was not himself a mushroom, his agency was uncannily mushroom-like: his sacredness enabling his ventriloquists to vocalize the truth “before any linguistic articulation was added to it.” It took an artist-provocateur, a trip to Mexico, and a hoax on Soviet television to reveal the foundational truth of the Soviet project as empty, producing a rupture in the symbolic fabric of the seemingly eternal state, which was soon to be “no more.”[203]

Alexei Yurchak:

I am grateful to Anya Bernstein for providing this subtle commentary on my essay. Both critical interventions that she proposes are generative and allow me to elaborate on some points further. First, she suggests complicating my analysis of the nature of political sacredness by considering contexts in which the sacred is undermined through blasphemy. Second, she suggests comparing the “ventriloquism” of Lenin’s voice as it was practiced by the Party, with ventriloquist techniques used in shamanic séances in some parts of the world. This parallel appeared particularly striking in relation to the ironic provocation by artist Sergei Kurekhin, who compared the Soviet construct, “Lenin,” to a hallucinogenic mushroom. I will follow both these suggestions to push my arguments further.

As Bernstein pointed out, analyzing the duality of the concept of blasphemy in Russian—that is rendered by two distinct terms koshchunstvo and bogokhul’stvo—may allow one to better focus on the meaning of Lenin’s political sacredness and its sudden undoing in the end of Soviet history. She seems to be using these terms almost synonymously, arguing that they differed only according to the context in which they were used—bogokhul’stvo points to religious contexts, while koshchunstvo is more readily used in secular contexts. While I mostly agree with this assessment I would like to problematize it by elaborating on these two concepts and their various manifestation further. We may start with etymology. Both terms have old Slavic roots. Bogokhul’stvo is a compound noun that originates from the verb hulit’ (to slur, to abuse) and noun bog (God). Traditionally, bogokhul’stvo was a term used against detractors within the church, someone who is committing heresy. From the point of view of an established church, it is sectarians who are engaged in bogokhul’stvo. For the Orthodox Christians it is the Catholics who do so (e.g., with their claim that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, as opposed to the Father only). The important point is that in this original sense, still retained today, one did not practice bogokhul’stvo with an intention to abuse a sacred object or person.

The other term, koshchunstvo, originates from the noun koshchun (mockery, ridicule). Unlike bogokhul’stvo, koshchunstvo is an attack with the intention to humiliate, ridicule, or destroy sacred objects, with this attack coming from outside the space of the sacred. It is manifested, for example, in the attacks on sacred religious objects from the position of an atheist who claims that religion is unscientific. When the Bolsheviks used scientific means to demonstrate that Orthodox relics were “fake,” they engaged in koshchunstvo (Murav’ev 2012).

While this topology of the two concepts may not account for all nuances of these terms, for all the changes that occurred to them during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, and for all contextual ambiguities these terms may acquire in everyday speech, it still seems to be largely accurate and helpful for our purposes. Bernstein pointed out that her informants tended not to use the term bogokhul’stvo when referring to the acts that ridiculed Lenin, using koshchunstvo instead. The reason for this, she suggests, was that most Soviet people did not experience Lenin’s sacredness as a religious phenomenon, which the term bogokhul’stvo more readily implies. This point fits well with the argument in my essay that the sacredness of Lenin cannot be described in quasi-religious terms. Still, I would like to problematize [204]Bernstein’s discussion by suggesting that bogokhul’stvo, just like koshchunstvo, also should not be reduced only to religious contexts. Both terms are defined in relation to “the sacred” more broadly, beyond its religious connotations. Perhaps it is true that the term bogokhul’stvo is rarely used in secular contexts and to some speakers has stronger religious echoes than koshchunstvo. However, its use is not limited to religion, and, furthermore, the phenomena that bogokhul’stvo describes, and koshchunstvo does not, certainly do exist outside of religion. Indeed, Leninism was routinely subjected to treatments comparable to bogokhul’stvo. One example is rivalry and factionalism within and between Communist parties. In the infamous “Marxist-Leninist polemic” between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties in the 1960s, each party argued that it represented true Marxism-Leninism and accused the other of “revisionism.” The accusation of revisionism was synonymous with that of bogokhul’stvo—the other side was seen as a deviationist, a heretic, someone who did not understand Marxist-Leninist philosophy and method of analysis, who practiced wrong Marxism-Leninism.

During the Soviet period, even in mundane contexts the sacred image of “Lenin” was routinely subjected to a kind of blasphemous treatment that was equivalent to bogokhul’stvo, and not koshchunstvo, although again the term would be rarely used. In my previous research I explored a complex set of rules and understandings that controlled representations of Lenin during the Soviet period. Some of these rules were explicit, while others were commonly understood but never explicitly formulated. Reading diaries of the late Soviet period and talking to the former Soviet people who went to schools in the 1960s and 1970s, I learned how they first came to this understanding. In schools, children often drew pictures for various Soviet holidays. Occasionally a child would draw a portrait of Lenin among red flags and other Soviet symbols. Clearly these portraits looked amateurish and teachers invariably explained to the child that one should not draw Lenin in this way. In the early 1970s, when a student from a school in Leningrad drew a portrait of Lenin for the day of the Soviet pioneers, she was told by her teacher: “I am going to give you a good grade, but you shouldn’t display this picture at the exhibition. And don’t show it to anyone. Only the best artists can draw Lenin; he should be drawn well.” Another student from the city of Kaliningrad was told by her teacher a decade later: “If you are not sure that you can draw faces, you should not touch Lenin. You may experiment with others’ portraits, but not with Lenin’s” (Yurchak 2006: 89). Other political images and faces in the Soviet world did not produce this kind of reaction. There was something unique about Lenin.

These cases were clearly different from drawing horns on Lenin’s portrait, which is an act of intentional blasphemy—a koshchunstvo. To the children, the teachers’ reaction came as a surprise. Children had thought that their drawings of Lenin demonstrated their sincere communist devotion and Soviet patriotism. Teachers also realized that the drawings were made quite earnestly, with no intended ridicule, but the obvious imperfections of these images made them uneasy. Teachers experienced them as an unintentional blasphemy performed by a naïve child who drew Lenin earnestly—a blasphemy that originated inside the space of the sacred. In other words, they saw it as bogokhul’stvo.

A person who was not a professional artist was not supposed to draw Lenin, and among professional artists, very few were authorized to draw or sculpt him. To earn [205]a license to do so, artists not only had to demonstrate the high quality of their work but also had to have in their studio a copy of Lenin’s death mask. A death mask is more than just a representation of the face—it also bears traces of the actual physical body itself. Using death masks in artistic work was supposed to guarantee that all images of Lenin were not just artistic renderings of his face but also direct extensions of his actual material body (which lay on display in the mausoleum). In other words, these images had to function like photographs. Photographs and drawings are indexical signs, but what kind of indexes they are differs. Jean-Luc Nancy famously argued that a photograph is more than an index of reality (contrary to what was suggested by André Bazin [1960]; Susan Sontag [1977]; and others)—it rather works as a death mask of what it represents, as a kind of a physical layer that has been “peeled off” the reality in the act of photographing it (Nancy 2005; Kaplan 2010). This difference between photographs and drawings is captured in the rule that prohibits newspapers from publishing photographs taken during a court trial, but allows them to publish artistic renderings of it. The former are direct physical traces of what is actually shown in the proceedings and as such they can affect the outcome. For the same reason, a photograph or footage of a crime scene, but not its drawing, can serve as incriminating evidence for the court. If a legitimate portrait of Lenin had to function as an extension of his physical body, as an “imprint” from his death mask, then children’s naïve portraits of him clearly violated this principle. It was this fact that the teachers experienced as unintentional blasphemy—a bogokhul’stvo.

Drawing on her informants’ opinions and dictionary definitions, Bernstein argues—quite convincingly—that the term bogokhul’stvo, unlike koshchunstvo, is rarely if at all used in secular contexts. However, as my examples seem to demonstrate, the actual experience of blasphemy, which is similar to bogokhul’stvo and different from koshchunstvo, does exists in modern secular contexts, even if the Russian term to describe them is not often used. Of course, our distinction between these terms is preliminary. A more exhaustive exploration of the sacred through the dual figures of blasphemy is needed.

A ubiquitous example of koshchunstvo today, from the point of view of some people, is when Lenin’s statues are violently destroyed (e.g., in the “de-communization campaign” in Ukraine, known as “Leninopad,” Leninfall). As with koshchunstvo more generally, such attacks intend to desecrate and destroy, and they come from outside of the communist political space, where Lenin’s sacredness is located. When horns were drawn on Lenin’s portrait during the Soviet period this was a similar, though smaller, act of koshchunstvo—intentional ridicule performed from outside the sacred space of Leninism. It would be also useful to draw on the analysis of different forms and politics of blasphemy in other contexts—for example, the Danish and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the attacks on sacred images of other religions by ISIS, et cetera (see, for example, Mitchel 1987, 2005; Asad et al. 2009; Mahmood 2009).

However, even this preliminary discussion of the distinction between koshchunstvo and bogokhul’stvo helps us to elucidate the phenomenon of Lenin’s sacredness. Both these types of blasphemy appear to be built into the very nature of sacredness, revealing its intrinsic duality. The sacred is the source of grace and the object of reverence but also the source of fear and the object of revulsion, [206]which has been well documented in anthropology.5 While one no longer senses this duality in the English word sacred, it is still retained in the French sacré—for example, la musique sacré (sacred or holy music) and un sacré menteur (damned liar) (Kurakin 2011).

The duality is clearly manifested in the attitudes to Lenin, Lenin’s monuments, and Lenin’s body. The endless lines of people on the Red Square waiting to see the embalmed body of Lenin in the mausoleum during the Soviet period have been replaced in the post–Soviet period with ubiquitous calls to “throw the repulsive mummy into the gutter” and to “burn the criminal corpse.” What was once an almost-universal reverence for Lenin has been replaced with almost-universal revulsion. This inversion has little to do with the resurgence of “real feelings” about Lenin that had been allegedly suppressed during the Soviet period. In fact, reverence for Lenin during the Soviet times was real and hardly depended on whether one actively believed in communism or did not think much about it. And the revulsion inspired by this figure among many people today is equally real. A quick succession of these feelings, following the change in the political system, in fact seems to reflect the very duality at the basis of Lenin’s political sacredness.

As I argue in the essay, that figure was constructed through the process of doubling, when some aspects of real Lenin were canonized within the Soviet political space, while others were banished from it. The canonized and banished parts were equally important and constitutive of Lenin’s sacredness. This duality was also related to the opposition between two figures that the ancient Roman law designated as politically sacred—the sovereign who was above the law and homo sacer who was below it. An analysis of how Lenin’s political sacredness was composed during the Soviet period, and how it was undone during perestroika, makes it visible that the “sovereign” and the “homo sacer” are not necessarily two distinct figures but can be seen as two sides of the same phenomenon of sacredness. The sovereign stands out among common people by his/her ability to act extra-legally—for example, not only to suspend law and declare the state of exception (Schmitt 2006) but also to pardon those who have been convicted by the judge. When all legal appeals have failed, the only hope left for a person on death row (the figure that is parallel to the ancient homo sacer) is presidential pardon or pardon by the governor of a US state. The “sacred Lenin” that the Party constructed and ventriloquized embodied both these figures: the sovereign and the homo sacer. A quick transition from reverence to revulsion in relation to Lenin was enabled by this duality at the basis of his sacredness and amounted to the inversion of this two-sided construct (see the final part of my essay, above).

Bernstein also helpfully pushed my metaphor of ventriloquism, linking it to the work of Waldemar Jochelson on Siberian shamanism. Anthropologists have written about ventriloquism as a technique in shamanic rituals in many parts of the world, including Siberia and Amazonia. In these areas, indigenous groups that “do not believe spirits can occupy human bodies” practice a different shamanic technique of “bring[ing] the spirits down alongside the shaman and hav[ing] them speak through ventriloquism” (Van Valen 2013: 118). On the one hand, we should [207]be careful not to overstate the parallel with shamanic ventriloquism if we want to avoid falling into a stereotypical interpretation of Leninism as a kind of religious or supernatural phenomenon. On the other hand, this parallel is indeed helpful in elucidating the nature of Lenin’s sacredness still further. Indeed, some of the Party’s actions toward Lenin, which I describe in the essay, were remarkably shaman-like.

In this sense, Kurekhin’s televised provocation was spot on: the infallible “Lenin” that the Communist Party constructed during the Soviet period played a curious role within the Soviet political discourse. The Party treated Lenin as the voice of Truth that was coming from outside of the Soviet time and space, history and politics. This voice spoke the Truth by definition, even before it said anything concrete. By ventriloquizing that voice (by “letting Lenin speak,” as a poster discussed in the essay proclaimed) the Party became the enunciator of Truth that was coming from elsewhere. Lenin was a “mushroom,” as Kurekhin proclaimed,6 not because he himself degenerated into less-than-human condition by the end of his life but because the “Lenin” that the Party created functioned as a substance—hallucinogenic substance—that infused the Party discourse with unconditional Truth regardless of what it said in any concrete historical period.

Anya Bernstein:

I enjoyed Alexei Yurchak’s thoughtful reply to my initial comments as much as his original article; I am rewarded to see his already illuminating and innovative analysis being pushed in new directions. My point in the previous reply was that Yurchak’s original observation about Lenin’s “sacredness” transcending the domain that is conventionally understood as “religious” is supported by the distinction between koshchunstvo and bogokhul’stvo, reinforcing this key point in his overall analysis, which goes beyond tired comparisons between the Lenin “cult” and religion. In his follow-up, Yurchak suggests an important clarification on my very preliminary distinctions between the two different Russian concepts of blasphemy by raising the issue of intention. Bogokhul’stvo, he argues, need not be intentional, whereas koshchunstvo is an attack on the sacred with the intention to ridicule. Therefore, he concludes, although the term bogokhul’stvo is not usually used in reference to Lenin, certain blasphemous acts toward his person that are committed without the intention to insult—such as a child unknowingly drawing Lenin in a way that is not appropriate—might be experienced as a bogokhul’stvo, even though the term is not applied.

At the risk of intruding on yet another voluminous and unwieldy field of study—as intentionality has been investigated for centuries from various theoretical [208]perspectives, from phenomenology to speech act theory to linguistic anthropology—I will make one brief point on this matter. In his response, Yurchak mentions the case of the cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed published by a right-wing Danish paper in 2006, in which the publishers defended themselves by saying they did not intend to offend Muslims, laying the blame on the receivers of the message and their “inappropriate” and “archaic” reading of signs. Yet, as many anthropologists subsequently pointed out, the modern liberal focus on intention often obscures the social relations that can be involved in acts such as blasphemy. Remarkably, not only did the Danish publishers insist that their action was self-contained in the absence of any intention to hurt—so that everything else, such as the effects of their action and Muslim reaction to it, was completely extraneous—but the explanation also seemed convincing to Western publics (Asad 2008; Keane 2009; Mahmood 2009).

If bogokhul’stvo would reference an unintentional offense from within the sacred space of Leninism and not from outside of it, as in the dismantling of Lenin’s monuments, what can be said about the act of embalming? Did Lenin’s embalmers commit a certain kind of bogokhul’stvo by preserving his body? Moreover, what does one make of the persistent myth revolving around a plan for Lenin’s eventual reanimation? Since the moment of Lenin’s embalmment, the myth of his intended “resurrection” has been a tenacious one in the popular imaginary and academic analyses alike. Yurchak convincingly deconstructed the notion by quoting scientists working in the Mausoleum Lab saying they find the “occasional speculations in the media” of Lenin’s “revival” preposterous, as his body is missing many organs, including the brain (Yurchak 2015a: 152). An interesting question then arises with the switch in focus from the intentions of Lenin’s embalmers to the social contexts and effects of the embalmment.

A certain constellation of religious, scientific, and social imaginaries became particularly prominent in Russia around the time of Lenin’s death. First, the Bolshevik revolution was accompanied by a biomedical revolution that made many believe science would soon make death obsolete (Krementsov 2013). Second, despite the state’s overt antireligious rhetoric, many believed that the goals of religion and science were no longer in contradiction, assuming that science would be devoted to enabling eternal life. Finally, yet others argued that the Revolution, far from resting content with the overcoming of human tyranny, should now take as its goal overcoming the tyranny of time and space themselves. These imaginaries existed independently of the lasting popularity of the nineteenth-century Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, but they fed into his ideas about using science to resurrect the dead as an ethical goal of filial duty. Fedorov’s ideas have meanwhile reemerged in Russia and more globally, as futurist biotechnologies have captured the imaginations of tech entrepreneurs and general public alike (Bernstein, unpublished).

As early as 1928, one of Fedorov’s followers, economist and philosopher Nikolai Setnitskii, argued that the only possible explanation for Lenin’s embalmment could be the unconscious hope for his resurrection. Venturing into anthropology and psychoanalysis, Setnitskii hypothesized two types of burials—what he considered more “ancient” anastatic burial (from the Greek anástasis, resurrection) concerned with preservation and the more “recent” assenisatory burial (from the French [209]assainissement, sanitation) concerned with the destruction of the body. In this binary, cremation would be a “sanitation”-type development subsequent to various older types of burials and embalmment.7 Pointing out that Lenin’s embalmment ran counter to Lenin’s own famous dictum that [believing in] “any little god is necrophilia,”8 Setnitskii interpreted the fact that Lenin’s body was kept within the Kremlin walls and not thrown outside city limits as an “unexpected manifestation of the deepest and probably hidden and unconscious tradition of anastatic burial—an act that resists all political explanations and interpretations currently being advanced.” Not only did he imply that the architects of Lenin’s embalmment might have committed something like an unintended bogokhul’stvo from the point of view of Leninism, he went on to suggest that aside from official intentions, the act of Lenin’s preservation went beyond the conscious intentions of his embalmers (Setnitskii [1934] 2008: 395–96).9

Setnitskii would ultimately suggest that the dead should be buried in the permafrost regions of Siberia to ensure better preservation. Now almost a century later, this persistent line of thought has been continued; a current informant of mine (in the business of cryonics) has expressed his regret that Lenin was embalmed instead of frozen. Freezing Lenin’s body had indeed been one of the options discussed by the Communist Party’s Central Committee (Yurchak 2015a: 10–11). “Had Lenin been frozen,” my interlocutor ventured, “Russia would have been the world leader in cryobiology.” Cryobiology, in this view, is a promising cutting-edge science, whereas from the point of view of advancing immortality, embalming (pardon the pun) is a dead-end.

The existence of such beliefs about Lenin is but one of the social effects of his embalmment, deflecting attention from what might have been the actual intentions of his embalmers. Another social effect includes the heated debates regarding his body and its subsequent fate. Just as the act of blasphemy depends not only on the intentions of its perpetrators, Lenin’s embalmment took place in a complex context of ongoing social relations in which any question of original intention has long since been transcended, having become part and parcel of the Soviet, post-Soviet, and, no doubt, future imaginaries on life, death, and the political.[210]

Alexei Yurchak:

Bernstein’s remarks once again are extremely helpful and challenging. She takes up two important issues: first, whether the category of the author’s intention may help us understand the injury associated with blasphemy, or whether it obscures the actual social realities that are productive of that injury; and, second, whether an implicit intention to “resurrect” Lenin played a role in the decision to preserve his body. The ultimate question is this: What might be the implications of both these problems for our understanding of the role that Lenin and Lenin’s body played in Soviet political history and its unexpected demise?

As Bernstein points out, in response to my attempt to provide some preliminary distinction between two types of blasphemy (bogokhul’stvo and koshchunstvo), the rhetoric of intentionality vis-à-vis the charges of blasphemy has been profoundly problematized in anthropology and other disciplines. When the publishers of the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in the conservative Danish newspaper argued that they did not intend to afflict injury on anyone, this did not make the real injury that many people felt because of the cartoons any less painful. Whether the publishers intended to or not, their actions had profound effects. The liberal focus on individual intention, Bernstein reminds us—not only among the newspaper publishers but also in much of Western media and public discourse—in fact contributed to obscuring the real social relations that were involved in producing the act of blasphemy. This point is well taken. But of course, we cannot conclude from this critique that the intentions of the authors of these cartoons played no role in creating the experience of blasphemy. And I do not think Bernstein would suggest that either. Much depends on what we, and they, mean by intention.

John Austin’s work on performatives discussed intention as one element in the “conditions of felicity” under which performatives operate. If a speech act is performed insincerely but appropriately in all other respects, it can be successful but abused. For example, if one takes an oath in a court of law to say only the truth, but at the same time privately intends to withhold some important facts, the oath will be successfully performed. This means that from the moment of the oath-taking ritual everything the person says will have the status of being said under oath, with all legal consequences that it implies, including possible persecution if the lie is exposed. There are two types of intention here: the person intends to take an oath about being sincere, but does not intend in fact to be sincere.

When the authors of Danish cartoons argued that they did not intend to abuse anyone, they nevertheless quite intentionally framed their images of the Prophet as cartoons (drawing them in a particular style, on a particular topic, with a particular message, placing them in the cartoon section of a newspaper, etc.). Many people felt the performative effect of this framing as abuse. Young Soviet schoolchildren who drew portraits of Lenin that the teachers deemed inappropriately amateurish (in examples above) sincerely intended their pictures to demonstrate their devotion to Lenin. The teachers recognized this sincerity. But they also recognized that a public display of these pictures—a different act organized with the teacher’s participation—could produce the experience of blasphemy vis-à-vis the “sacred” figure. The teachers did not punish the students, and in one case gave a student a good grade, but they also asked the students not to show their pictures publicly. A picture [211]intended as reverence for the sacred figure, and seen as such by others, could be also experienced as disrespect for that figure if displayed in a particular way. Both interpretations were possible and depended on how the picture was drawn and how it was framed, in what context it was encountered, what its audience was, et cetera. But neither interpretation was devoid of the author’s intention and responsibility.

Stanley Cavell (1987) discussed this in his commentary on the famous debate between Jacques Derrida and John Searle about Austin’s theory of performatives. The debate focused on Derrida’s critique of intentionality. Derrida started by acknowledging that Austin demonstrated well that the success of a performative depends on the observation of conventions in which the ritualized speech act is performed, and not on the intention of the speaker (Derrida 1977). The above example of an oath that is successfully performed in court, even if one’s private intention is to hide the truth, illustrates this point. However, continued Derrida, having disconnected intention from his explanation of how the performative force of language works, Austin later made a mistake of brining intention back into his theory. He did so by bracketing out intentionally fake “parasitic cases” (e.g., when an oath is taken by an actor in a theater play) as not real performatives.

With this unfortunate decision, continued Derrida, Austin linked his analysis of performative force with the speaker’s internal intention. However, the nature of language, according to Derrida, allows for a complete disconnect between what the author intends by his/her words and what they might mean in a given context. In fact, according to Derrida, the performative force of language is based precisely in the ability of language to be radically cut off from the original intentions of the author. He called it force de rupture of language. For example, an ancient text can be deciphered even when all knowledge of its authors and what they intended to say have been lost. What the authors mean and how the text is in fact interpreted may have nothing in common. The author may be radically absent from the text.

Derrida’s argument is powerful and his critique of Austin’s exclusion of “parasitic” cases is important. However, this argument is strongly overstated, as Stanley Cavell demonstrated. Cavell agrees with Derrida that we can never predict what a concrete interpretation of a text by someone else will be, but disagrees that there is a radical disconnect between what the author meant, or thought that he/she meant, and how the text is interpreted. According to Cavell, every utterance and written word is forever linked to its source, however illusive this link may be. If they are radically cut off from it, the text will cease to be intelligible. An ancient text whose origins have been long lost can be understood today only if there is enough semiotic organization in it (particular lexical, grammatical, stylistic, and narrative structures, contextual clues, etc.) that would make it decipherable. This semiotic organization is one of the author’s traces in the text. While it is true that the authorial intentions are never equal to all the unexpected meanings a text can take, these intentions are never fully absent from the meanings the text might take either. The author is forever present in what he/she once said and continues to be partially responsible for how it might be interpreted.

As Cavell puts it, echoing Mikhail Bakhtin, “the price for having once spoken, or remarked, taken something as remarkable . . . is to have spoken forever, to have entered the arena of the inexcusable, to have taken on the responsibility of responsiveness, of answerability, to make yourself intelligible. It is in recognizing this [212]abandonment to my words . . . that I know my voice, recognize my words (no different from yours) as mine” (Cavell 1987: 65). In a different essay, aptly titled “Must we mean what we say?” Cavell reiterated this point: “we are . . . as responsible for the specific implications of our utterances as we are for their explicit factual claims.” We must take responsibility for all the meanings our words might ever take, including meanings that are completely different from what we might take to be our intentions (Cavell 2015: 12). The publishers of the Danish cartoons failed to take this responsibility and to think seriously of the implications of their words and images outside of their own liberal assumptions about human nature, the experience of the sacred, the nature of free speech, et cetera.

But what about the intentions—explicit and implicit—behind the preservation and public display of Lenin’s body? Does the act of embalming constitute a kind of political koshchunstvo? Is it linked to implicit hopes for Lenin’s resurrection?

It is true that at the time of Lenin’s death, the idea of preserving his body for the future circulated in popular media and discourse. The Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party (CC) started receiving letters outlining different methods of preservation immediately after Lenin’s death. Sometimes these proposals were justified with the idea that they might enable the revival of Lenin in the future. On January 22, 1924, the day after Lenin’s death, two rank-and-file party members wrote to the CC with their own proposed method. The body would have to be “gradually frozen with regular cold, and after that immersed in water in a bath or another vessel and frozen as transparent mass of ice, with the body located in the middle.” The uniqueness of the Communist project called for unique measures: “there is nothing rare about burying [the body] in the ground,” they argued. “But to preserve it for thousands of years—this can be achieved only by the Communist party, which will later be able even to revive it.”10

In fact, in the summer 1924 Lenin’s body was embalmed, not frozen. If we considered how exactly this was done and how this body has been maintained ever since, all talk about “resurrection” as an implicit rationale behind this project would appear highly improbable. The scientists of the Mausoleum Lab that has maintained Lenin’s body since 1924, who fully re-embalm it every eighteen months, sneer at the suggestions (not uncommon in the media and popular discourse today) that Lenin might have been preserved in hope of future revival. These scientists know that Lenin’s body is missing the brain, which was taken out immediately after death, conserved in formaldehyde, and dissected into thirty-one thousand extra-thin slices, with each slice preserved between two plates of glass for microscopic study.11 They also know that all other internal organs had been taken out during autopsy, and that for decades most of the body’s remaining tissues (muscles, fats, tendons, layers of skin) have been so thoroughly augmented [213]with artificial inorganic materials, and in some cases completely supplemented by them, that talking about this body in purely biological terms is hardly possible (Yurchak 2015a).

Of course, that the scientists think in this way today does not necessarily mean that the party leadership did not entertain the idea of resurrection at the initial stages of this project, in 1924. To understand how the Party leaders thought about Lenin’s body then, we may eavesdrop on the meetings of the Commission for the Preservation of Lenin’s Memory, where the fate of this body was discussed in 1924 and later. In fact, many high-ranking members of this Commission and of the Party leadership, including Trotsky, Bukharin, Voroshilov, and Lenin’s widow Krupskaya were adamantly opposed to the idea of preservation, calling it anti-Marxist (Yurchak 2015a). And even though the plan to preserve Lenin’s body for display finally won after several months of debates, this plan was discussed in terms that were hardly compatible with the idea of “revival.” For example, from the beginning preserving a dynamic form of this body—its outward look, weight, flexibility, suppleness, water balance, et cetera—took precedence over the preservation of its actual biomatter. Constitutive biomaterials could be changed as long as the dynamic form remained preserved. The method of freezing the body, which was proposed initially (in early 1924), was rather quickly rejected with the similar rationale in mind: a frozen body would maintain all of its postmortem physical defects, would become stiff, and could not be resculpted and improved with supplementary materials. Special commissions consisting of Party leaders and scientists continued to inspect the body regularly throughout the Soviet history. It appears from their reports that maintaining a dynamic form of this body had been always more important than preserving its biomateriality. Lenin’s body has increasingly become not a preserved corpse but a constructed sculpture, or at least a combination of the two (Yurchak 2015a, 2015b). Indeed, one of the leading scientists in the lab, and one of my key informants, often describes Lenin’s body as a live sculpture (Yurchak 2015a).

It is true that these efforts to maintain a particular kind of body can be interpreted today as attempts to keep it as forever undead or neither dead nor alive (the term live sculpture also points to this ambiguity). However, this condition of the body has little to do with literal biological life or resurrection. In fact, any talk of resurrecting Lenin had been seen by the Party as dangerous—it implicitly referred to the real person called Lenin, as opposed to the artificially constructed “Leninism” and its embodiment lying in the mausoleum that the Party created after Lenin’s death. Real Lenin was a politician who sometimes made mistakes and changed his opinions. Like any politician he was ambiguous and contradictory, which was dangerous for the “Lenin” of the unquestionable Truth that the Party had created. Indeed, it was precisely the attempts of the reformers in the Party leadership to return to “real” Lenin during perestroika, and to revive Lenin’s “real” voice, that spelled the end of the Soviet project (see my essay above). When the old Soviet metaphor that Lenin was “more alive than all the living” was finally taken literally, the Soviet Union disintegrated.


I am grateful to Anya Bernstein, and to the editors of HAU, for making this discussion possible and letting me articulate some new idea and challenge me to develop [214]old ones. As Bernstein points out in the end of her comments, the initial project of the party and its scientists for the preservation of Lenin’s body has been long transcended by social realities that followed Lenin’s death and more recently, the end of the Soviet Union. Today, Lenin continues to be the subject of heated debates in many parts of the former Soviet world, Lenin’s monuments continue to be toppled, or defended, and the future fate of Lenin’s body and the Lab that maintains it continue to be anyone’s guess.

Some of Bernstein’s comments and questions in this exchange are connected to her deep engagement with the topics of transhumanism, immortality, cryonic preservation, and resurrection, which are all central issues in the book that she is currently completing (and that I am looking forward to reading in the near future). I am planning to complete my own book on Lenin’s body and the science that developed around it, at about the same time, and expect many new exchanges between us, next time with both books in hand.


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———. 2011. “A parasite from outer space: How Sergei Kurekhin proved that Lenin was a mushroom.” Slavic Review 70 (2): 307–33.

———. 2015a. “Bodies of Lenin: The hidden science of communist sovereignty.” Representations 129 (1): 116–57.

———. 2015b. “Form versus matter: Miraculous relics and Lenin’s scientific body.” In “Death, Dying, and Mortality,” special issue of Collegium: Studies Across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences 19:61–81.

Une nécropolitique sacrée: Discussion sur l’essai d’Alexei Yurchak “Le Canon et le champignon: Lénine, le Sacré et l’effondrement soviétique”

Résumé : Dans cette réflexion Anya Bernstein et Alexei Yurchak parlent de l’essai de Yurchak “Le Canon et le champignon: Lénine, le Sacré et l’effondrement soviétique,” également publié dans ce volume. Ils y évoquent certains passages de l’essai qui sont centraux pour comprendre le personnage de Lénine et son rôle dans l’histoire Soviétique, envisagent les perspectives ouvertes par l’essai et établissent des liens avec d’autres thèmes importants en anthropologie. Ces thèmes incluent notamment le sacré et le blasphème; la mort, la résurrection et l’immortalité; le langage, l’intentionnalité, et la responsabilité; la notion de voix, de ventriloquie et de vérité; et bien plus encore.

Anya Bernstein
Department of Anthropology and Committee on Degrees in Social Studies
Harvard University
Tozzer Anthropology Building 218
21 Divinity Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138

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


1. Contrary to reports in the Euro-American press, which decried the decline of secularism in Russia, there are no official blasphemy laws in the Russian Criminal Code. Instead, these issues are covered by hate speech laws, which can involve the “offense of religious feelings.” See Anya Bernstein (2013) and (2014).

2. “Bogokhul’stvovat’.” Tolkovyi slovar’ Ozhegova (1949–92), cited from http://www.ozhegov.org/words/1964.shtml. Accessed September 2017.

3. “Koshchunstvo.” Tolkovyi slovar’ Ozhegova (1949–92), cited from http://www.ozhegov.org/words/13485.shtml. Accessed September 2017. While more in-depth etymology research on the origins of koshchunstvo might reveal different origins, here I refer only to contemporary usages. There is some evidence that koshchunstvo had a very different meaning, going back to pre-Christian Slavic folklore.

4. See Steven Lee Myers, “Novoi Rossii—novye ostanki,” Inosmi, October 10, 2005 (Russian translation of Myers’ article “For a new Russia, new relics”), http://inosmi.ru/inrussia/20051010/222868.html; “Nationalisty vozmushcheny slovami Putina o mavzolee Lenina,” Russkaia sluzhba BBC, December 11, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/russian/russia/2012/12/121211_nationalists_putin_lenin_debate; see also commentaries to the article by Andrei Zaitsev, “Putin, Lenin i moshchi” which appeared on an Orthodox website, December 13, 2012. http://www.pravoslavie.ru/58115.html, accessed September 11, 2017.

5. Starting with the famous nineteenth-century lectures by William Robertson Smith on “the religion of Semites” (Smith 1894).

6. Bernstein’s parallel between Kurekhin’s provocative claim that “Lenin was a mushroom” and the discussion by anthropologists of the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Siberian shamanic practices is precise in more ways than one. In fact, when Kurekhin was preparing for this televised hoax in the early 1990s, he was reading Russian translations of the books by anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, which, although discredited since, referred to the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in shamanic practices. Kurekhin based his ideas for the hoax partially on this reading (Yurchak 2011).

7. Anthropological evidence, of course, includes counterexamples, where the destruction of the body—for example, through endocannibalism—is as much an act of love and compassion for ancestors as the Fedorovian resurrection.

8. Setnitskii quotes Lenin’s famous phrase Vsiakii bozhen’ka est’ trupolozhstvo from his 1913 letter to Maksim Gor’kii.

9. The piece was written in 1928. One could argue that if Lenin’s embalmers indeed unconsciously wanted to preserve him for future resurrection, they had committed another blasphemy, as resurrection is a divine business and not a human one. Yet Setnitskii, following Fedorov, believes that active human involvement in bringing about the resurrection of the dead promised by Christianity—with the difference that Fedorov included all of the dead and not only the righteous or chosen ones—is part of the original divine plan. For lack of space, I cannot address the details of his argument (see Bernstein, unpublished).

10. RGASPI (Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History): ed. khr. 54, f. 16, op. 2c, papka 5, str. 45.

11. It took Russian and German scientists almost two years, between 1925 and 1927, to complete the cutting of Lenin’s brain into so many slices. See the story in Der Spiegel, in Russian translation: Marc von Lüpke. “Issledovania sovetskoi elity. Mozg Lenina v razreze.” December 5, 2014 (German original published on November 23, 2014), available at: http://inosmi.ru/world/20141205/224635979.html.