Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Ersatz reputation (Illustration by Michael Daley)
Despite the best efforts of the embalmers, the Lenin on show in the mausoleum is not really the Lenin who actually lived. The eyelashes are fake; the originals having wilted long ago in the chemical soup. Much of the skin is synthetic too. Over more than 90 years, a maintenance team that at its height was 200-strong has steadily patched up the old revolutionary until no one knows how much of him is ersatz and how much the real McCoy. He’s had at least one posthumous nose job, and even his subcutaneous fat has been replaced by a noxious gloop of glycerine, carotene and paraffin.
As with the corpse, so with the reputation. Much of the latter, though, stank of the bogus from the off. There were more than 900 years of iconographic tradition behind some of those preposterous posters that kick-started the cult of Lenin after the revolution. Some featured classical temples; others the sun’s rays, factory chimneys or flowing flags. In all of them, there he stood, chin-up eyes set on a far horizon. In many, he is pointing, as so many of today’s politicians do, at nothing and no one in particular. This gesture is designed to communicate a sense of purpose and direction to beef up the over-arching messages: that Lenin was a heroic figure and a man of destiny.
But so much of the backstory was confected and contrived, the product of the propagandist’s art. Take for example the October revolution of 1917 itself: a popular uprising that never really happened.
What has largely shaped perceptions of the event was Eisenstein’s film October, which depicts the dramatic “storming” of the Winter Palace by a column of Red Guards, soldiers and sailors, with the cruiser Aurora giving the starting signal. But there was no “storming” of the Winter Palace. The doors were open and those inside offered little or no resistance. As the old joke goes, there was more ordnance detonated in the making of the movie than in the action itself.
There wasn’t much fighting at all during the October days. Only six deaths are recorded among the Red Guards and these were what nowadays we’d call “blue on blue”. Throughout the whole of this socialist revolution the Petrograd taxis continued to operate as usual.