18 February 2007

Thursdays with Ilych

A posting of something written but not yet posted. My apologies to those of you for whom this is a repeat.


I visited the old man yesterday. THE old man.

I remember the first time I visited him seven years ago. It was a perfect day for the occasion: the chilly October winds cut through the square and through my jacket, while the darkening gray sky threatened to blanket Moscow in her first snow of the season. It was quiet, peaceful, and somber. It was perfect.

I don't remember waiting long to see him. The impatient American in me must have been pleased; the Russophile in me could only have been disappointed at being denied the opportunity to engage in a quintessential Russian past time. As I filed across the cold cobblestones I remember my heart racing as I approached, not quite believing that I was soon to meet the man about whom I had read so much.

He was smaller than I expected, more serene than I expected, and frankly, quieter than I expected. One expects more from a man who changed the course of a country (and by extension) the world, even if he has been dead for 80 years. It's hard to reconcile the peaceful image of a sleeping grandfather with the historical forces he unleashed (created?), but I suppose that's all part of the mystery. My Russian comrades and I shuffled through in silence, and I couldn't help but wonder why they were there. I was a tourist, a foreigner. They were the product of his system, though I doubt many of them were there to thank him for the results.

Since that day I've been back to Lenin's mausoleum many times. I think today was the seventh. None of the subsequent visits have measured up to that day in October; this seems to be one of those activities that is always better the first time. The sun has been shining, the air has been warm, the Japanese and Swedish tour groups flanking me have giggled, pointed, and chatted. Despite the fact that the guards surrounding Lenin hush any talkers, simply breaking the silence erases the mystery (I keep avoiding using the word "magic" for fear that my meaning will be misconstrued; I suppose I'll get to that below).

Even today wasn't quite right, despite the lack of foreigners and the chilly temperatures (about 15, I think). The sun was out today, along with a tour group of Russians, complete with the requisite tour guide narrating the infamous line of Soviet heroes buried in the Kremlin wall that visitors to the mausoleum are required to pass after exiting the tomb. These were not the dwindling communist sympathizers that often constitute the Russian visitors to Lenin, but rather tourists visiting a now-foreign country (figuratively speaking). Their presence speaks volumes, but so did they. Hence, my dissatisfaction with the experience.

Yet despite the fact that conditions are never perfect and the excitement and wonder of that first time are gone, I still shudder when I step through the doorway into the dark marbled entryway, slowly descend the steps to the left, and emerge into the chamber below that glows in the soft light emanating from the glass sarcophagus. The thought that always crosses my mind as I look at him - the thought that keeps me returning to him time after time- is the same thought that first captured my interest in all things Russian so many years ago: here lies a man who, for better or for worse (more worse than better), created something - a country, a people, an idea - that truly shook the world. Even more stunning was the ease with which his creation came crashing to the ground 74 years later, passing into the fabled dustbin of history. Regardless of what you think of the man and his politics, few people in history can be said to have influenced its course as greatly. And so this is the magic of Lenin's tomb for me: it is not only a reminder of what got me here in the first place, but it's also a fleeting window into one of the most fascinating eras in human history.

And so I will return again and again until he rests there no more. My host mother visited Lenin once as a child; my host father has never been and never will. My Russian isn't good enough to explain the above to them, and even if it were I doubt they would understand. So I simply tell them, "I'm a student of history and politics, so it's very interesting to me." They seemed to be satisfied with that answer, though perhaps it was just the fact that their favorite tele-drama was coming on TV. In any case, we didn't address Vladimir Ilych any further.

What will the next visit look like? I've decided to wait until the weather is perfectly awful. Frigid temperatures, blowing winds, falling snow, and dark skies. Conditions that will keep all but the most sullen, somber, and contemplative from embarking on a fading pilgrimage. Maybe then the mystery, and dare I say magic, will be restored.

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