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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The Heavy Hand Of The Past

Washington, 3 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Three developments this week highlight the difficulties Russians continue to have in coping with the past even as they seek to overcome current problems and to build a better future.

On Tuesday, someone blew up a bronze statue of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, in Moscow. On Wednesday, the Duma voted overwhelmingly but unsuccessfully to restore the Soviet flag, emblem and anthem.

And on the same day, the Russian parliament passed a non-binding resolution against proscribing any attempt to remove Vladimir Lenin from the mausoleum on Red Square and bury the founder of the Soviet state somewhere else.

Each of these events shreds light on the problems Russians have in trying to fashion a contemporary identity given their troubled past.

The bombing of the statue of the last tsar was perhaps the most dramatic. Erected in May 1996 to mark the 100th anniversary of the coronation of Nicholas, the 11 meter bronze statue was apparently destroyed by communist groups upset by the rising tide of monarchism.

A hitherto unknown group, calling itself the Workers-Peasants Red Army, took credit for the action, apparently timed to protest both the arrival in Russia of the Grand Duchess Leonida Georgiyevna and suggestions that Lenin should be removed from the mausoleum.

The All-Russian Monarchist Centre said on Wednesday that the destruction of the statue was "the latest attempt by communist satanic forces" to prevent the canonization of Nicholas and his martyred family.

Then, on Wednesday, the communist-dominated Russian parliament voted 239 to 90 to restore the Soviet-era flag, 243 to 98 to restore the Soviet emblem, and 243 to 95 to restore the Soviet anthem. None of the measures passed, however, because they needed a two-thirds majority or a total of 300 deputies.

Consequently, some Western news reports suggested that the Duma had "rejected" the red flag, hammer and sickle, and the Soviet-era anthem.

While that was strictly true, the overwhelming votes for the restoration of these symbols and the even more underwhelming number of deputies willing to vote against such a move back to the past are more indicative of Russia's current state.

And such a conclusion seems even more justified from the voting on a non-binding resolution prohibiting the removal of Lenin's body from the mausoleum.

Last month, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reopened the debate on where Lenin should lie when he suggested that Moscow might hold a referendum on the subject.

He presumably made that suggestion because of the popular opposition his 1993 proposal to bury Lenin immediately had generated.

But once again, the Russian president found himself facing an angry public and without much support from his own government.

Lenin's niece, Olga Ulyanova, spoke for many when she said last week that moving Lenin now could "lead to consequences which no one can predict or even imagine."

And the Duma backed her up. By a vote of 241 to 11, it passed a resolution entitled "Prevent an Act of Vandalism" calling on Yeltsin not to move the founder of the Soviet state from his current place of honor.

But perhaps more significant than the overwhelming vote for this resolution was the decision by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's pro-government party "Our Home is Russia" to abstain rather than vote against it and back Yeltsin.

That decision reflects both divisions within the upper reaches of the Russian government and the conclusion of Chernomyrdin's party that voting against Lenin, even five years after the end of the Soviet Union, will not win them any support among the people.

Twice in this century, the Russian people have rejected their past, first in 1917, and again in 1991.

But just as in the first case, so too now, Russians have discovered that it is far easier to reject the past than to escape it.