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Russia: 80 Years After His Death, Russians Remember -- Or Try To Forget -- 'Uncle' Lenin

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik leader who devised and led the 1917 October Revolution that catapulted the Communists into power, died 80 years ago today. The anniversary is attracting moderate public interest. But while Lenin's legacy still spurs heated debate, it appears to be slowly fading from Russians' collective memory.

Moscow, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In 1991, the inhabitants of what was then Leningrad voted overwhelmingly in favor of restoring their city's historical name -- St. Petersburg.

It seemed a clear indication of what they thought about the Bolshevik leader, who irreversibly altered the history of their country and ushered in 70 years of Communist rule.

But what do St. Petersburgers think about Vladimir Lenin today, 80 years after his death on 21 January 1924? A correspondent with RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to passersby in Russia's second city.

"I don't even know how to put it in respectable words -- he's a German spy who took power without the slightest idea about what to do with that power. And of course he carries the blame for what happened to Russia in the 20th century," the man said.

Younger Petersburgers say Lenin's legacy is far less relevant for them:

"I can't say that I have some particular attitude toward him. I guess he's just a page of our country's history that we can't cross out. I think for now, our attitude is split. More time needs to pass before we can objectively say who he was in terms of the history of our country," one woman said.

A number of adolescents and children who born after the fall of the Soviet regime seem unclear even as to who Lenin is. But some describe him as a bold leader who effected his own form of regime change:

"He's the leader of the Russian revolution and must have been an exceptional man to have managed to turn the country upside down like that, changed the regime. The fact that [now] they say negative things about him doesn't have any effect on me. From when I was small I was fed the idea that he was a positive hero and that's what he stayed for me," one young man said.

Many other Russians associate Lenin with their earliest school years -- he was the grandfatherly figure with the little beard and friendly smile at the front of their first-grade schoolbooks.

According to a poll conducted earlier this month by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), about a quarter of Russians surveyed had an overall positive view of Lenin as a progressive leader whose good intentions were often twisted by those who followed him.

Sixteen percent of Russians said Lenin "took Russia along the wrong path, causing much suffering." Another 14 percent described him as flatly cruel.

But love him or hate him, Alexei Levinson -- a sociologist with VTsIOM -- says the memory of Lenin is steadily fading from view.
"I don't even know how to put it in respectable words -- he's a German spy who took power without the slightest idea about what to do with that power."


"Different studies show that [Lenin] is one of the main, most significant historical figures, but interest in him is falling or stagnating. If you look at who Russians consider the greatest people of all time and of all places, there is this staple trio that merged a long time ago -- Peter the Great, Lenin, and [Alexander] Pushkin. The relevance of all three of them is low, but they are national symbols -- of culture, of politics, and of Russia as a great power," Levinson said.

According to Levinson, Lenin is most beloved by older generations and the Communist electorate, as well as those with lower levels of education. But as Lenin's star is fading, that of a subsequent leader -- Josef Stalin -- has risen in recent years.

"More of Lenin's supporters are of the older generation, whereas more of Stalin's supporters are middle-aged or from the younger generation. So it's not [the reflection] of [Stalin's] personality cult that captured quite a few people, in their youth, who are still alive today. It's something new -- the demand for a symbol that serves society's present mood," Levinson said.

Levinson says while Lenin is remembered by many as a benign, almost avuncular leader, the memory of Stalin is of a man in uniform who led his country to victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). As opposed to Lenin's "soft" image, Levinson says, Stalin's "hard" image serves as "symbolic compensation for Russians who suffer from a feeling of weakness."
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