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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Reburying the Past

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Recent proposals to bury Lenin and to rebury Stalin highlight the difficulties many post-communist countries have as they try to come to terms with their own national histories.

Last Friday, the leader of the Stalin Society called for the reburial of the Soviet dictator in his native Georgia. Grigol Oniani made this appeal in a letter to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze but said his group would pay all expenses.

And on Monday, a legal advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin argued that a Russian constitutional provision against favoring any ideology means that the state must close the mausoleum on Red Square and allow for Lenin's burial or display by his followers elsewhere.

Neither of these apparently dramatic appeals is in fact new: Oniani has been calling for the return of Stalin to Georgia since at least 1994. And Krasnov's words echo statements by Yeltsin and other Russian leaders going back to 1991.

But neither proposal is necessarily going to be accepted anytime soon. Both Russian and Georgian societies remain divided on the merits of such steps. And both supporters and the opponents of these moves are themselves divided on what such reburials might mean.

The advocates of burying Lenin and reburying Stalin include both those who want to exorcise the tragedies of the Soviet past and those who want to somehow continue to venerate that past.

Among the first are people like Krasnov; among the latter are people like Oniani's Society.

The opponents are equally divided. Some oppose these steps because they see them as an attack on a heritage they hold dear, be it the Soviet state established by Lenin or Stalin's leadership during World War II.

But others have problems with one or the other of these steps on broader philosophical grounds. While their objections have received relatively little attention, they are interesting because of the light they shed on memory and forgetting in this region.

Twice in this century, this argument runs, Russia has repudiated its past and sought to construct something entirely new. In 1917, the Bolsheviks rejected everything connected with the past and proclaimed their intention of building an entirely new world.

Seventy-four years later, Russian democrats rejected the Soviet experiment and declared their intention of building yet another new world informed less by the history of their own country than by a set of ideas imported from abroad.

In both cases, these wholesale rejections of the past tsarist and then Soviet did not have the effect that their authors hoped for. Instead of exorcising the past, its rejection had the effect of allowing the past to seep back into life in often unfortunate ways.

In the course of Soviet times, the leadership routinely if often unconsciously re-imported that which they had supposedly rejected, be it the iconographic treatment of leaders or the introduction of new but equally "sacred" texts.

Since the end of the Soviet times, a similar phenomenon appears to be at work in Russia and some other countries of the former Soviet Union. Leaders who rejected everything about the Soviet past now often are importing Soviet traditions, again often unconsciously.

Decisions about the specific locations of the bodies of the two former Soviet leaders are not terribly important for the future of these societies.

But the ways in which the debates are conducted, the ways in which people there confront the past in order to overcome it rather than deny it and see it live again, are fundamental.

And unless these societies confront the dangers inherent in thinking that they can overcome history by denying its importance or shifting a couple of bodies, they are likely to find out that they cannot escape that which they have so publicly rejected.