Every couple of years, when a few more Communists and Soviet nostalgics have gone to their graves, Russia toys with the idea of finally sending Vladimir Lenin to his.

The remaining Communists and Soviet nostalgics usually kick up a fuss and he stays where he has been, save for the occasional excursion to a vat of glycerol and potassium acetate, for nearly 90 years: down a short flight of stairs in a dimly limit crypt, in a granite-and-marble mausoleum in the middle of Red Square, several hours by train from the patch of earth next to his mother where he explicitly said he wished to be buried.

The latest round of will-they-or-won’t-they started up late last week when Vladimir Kozhin, the head of the Kremlin’s property-management department, told The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon that “nobody likes this cemetery in the centre of Moscow” and “I think [Vladimir Putin] agrees with me”.

If Kozhin is right, it will mark an interesting shift in the president-elect’s position. In 2001, Putin said he opposed the burial of the Bolshevik leader on the grounds that many Russians still “associate the name of Lenin with their own lives” and that removing him from the mausoleum would make them feel as though “they had worshipped false values”. In 2010, by which time the debate had essentially become an annual one, Putin was still waving the possibility away, albeit much less forcefully, saying that “the Russian people will decide what to do with him when the time comes”. In 2011, Putin’s party, United Russia, conducted an online poll at goodbyelenin.ru, which found that 70% of respondents favoured the mummified body’s burial. Kozhin’s comments appear to suggest that the time his boss referred to has come.

The Moscow laboratory that handles the embalming, Medical Biological Technologies, has relied on private donations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but is hardly going to go out of business if it loses its first and most famous client. Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-sung are serviced by the laboratory and Kim Il-jong is reportedly about to join their ranks. With Lenin poised to leave them, however, I thought it was time to pay him a visit.

Compared to Mao Zedong’s Tiananmen Square mausoleum, with its giant white statue of the god-like chairman, thousand of mourning visitors streaming through at a militarily regulated pace, and kitschy souvenir stands out the back, Lenin’s is a modest affair. Visitor numbers have dropped off substantially in recent years. Indeed, rock up the right time and you’re likely to find yourself alone with the mummy and a single guard, the latter whom won’t make a fuss if you linger slightly longer than is allowed.

But the effect of both corpses is roughly the same and completely at odds with their intended purpose. They render the men who lived in them — neither of whom had any desire to be embalmed for public display — small and pathetic. Far from suggesting their ongoing relevance and the permanence of the regimes they founded, their bodies remind us of the impermanence of all things, not least that of dynasties, reichs and the rest. Like the statues of Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington, DC — neither of which Jefferson or Lincoln would have particularly liked or appreciated — the statues of Lenin that still litter Siberia remain far more effective propaganda for the man and his ideas that the dead little fellow in the glass box and his civvies. Lenin was surprisingly short.

Which is why the most impactful thing about Lenin’s mausoleum is actually what’s buried out the back of it. Joseph Stalin shared the crypt with his predecessor for the first eight years after his own death, but was removed and buried in 1961 in accordance with Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinisation. But while the move may have been intended as a slight in those heady years of the thaw, the slighted has ultimately benefited from it. Not being being able to see Stalin’s body gives it a power that Lenin and Mao’s sorely lack and the man himself a presence that is practically omnipotent because it’s invisible. He’s like one of Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors, or an STD. Indeed, he’s like the style of totalitarian police state he gave his pseudonymous name to. The impulse one feels before his grave — to be be fought unless one wishes to be deported — is to spit on it.

Unless, of course, one is Sergei Udaltsov, Russian opposition leader and semi-permanent resident of Moscow’s pre-trial detention cells, who recently told cable and internet television station TV Rain that “Stalin was not a criminal”.

If Udaltsov’s comments went unreported in the Western press, which has otherwise paid him a lot of attention, it was likely because he was in prison at the time and the opposition was in need of a martyr. This means the Western media was in need of one, too, though the whole plan went belly-up the day after the broadcast when the leftist leader’s 10-day sentence for disobeying police orders and organising an unauthorised march was overturned and he was fined $36 instead. One doesn’t have to like or support the authorities — who this week reaffirmed Alexei Kozlov’s 2008 conviction on questionable charges of fraud and money-laundering, which many believe was designed to intimidate his wife, the oppositionist journalist Olga Romanova, and who are attempting to jail several members of the all-female punk band Pussy Riot for what amounted to an ill-advised prank — to note that this fine wasn’t a particularly harsh punishment.Stalin, who apparently wasn’t a criminal, would have had the Udaltsov sent to Siberia or shot. Udaltsov said he would lodge an appeal against the fine on the grounds that he is innocent. Which he probably would have done had he not gone and gotten himself arrested again yesterday evening.

Actually, Udaltsov wasn’t innocent of the crime with which he was charged, but the laws around this sort of thing are stupid and the penalties often insanely harsh. (The Pussy Riot band members are facing seven years on charges of hooliganism for singing a punk song in a church.) These are the sort of laws that don’t deserve to be followed.

But I am increasingly convinced that Udaltsov’s actions have little if anything to do with making such an argument. They almost certainly have nothing to do with strengthening the opposition by broadening its base or furthering its aims. If they did, he wouldn’t take them. Both the Udaltsov-led March 5 occupation of Pushkinskaya Square, which no one bought tents to because they never really planned to occupy the place, and the March 10 march on Pushkinskaya, which followed a route that didn’t lead to the square, did more to turn rank-and-file oppositionists away from them protests rather than towards them. If the decline in numbers evident at the first post-election protest could be put down to the threat of a police crackdown, then the sharp plummet in evidence at the second could be put down to the fact that 200-300 radicals at the first deliberately sought such a confrontation.

After that protest’s violent end, I wrote that I thought Udaltsov and his fellow opposition leaders, Alexey Navalny and Ilya Yashin, had been seeking a propaganda victory against the regime at the wider opposition’s expense. After Udaltsov’s not-really-a-march the following weekend, which Navalny and Yashin both avoided, I became convinced that he was the single largest thorn in the nascent movement’s side. Everything Udaltsov does has one objective and that is to build his own profile, his own myth, among his conspicuously small base.

And is really is conspicuously small. No action spearheaded by or on behalf of the Left Front leader — such as the late December gathering that rightly called for an end to his nearly month-long imprisonment following that month’s parliamentary election — has drawn fewer than a thousand people. On Saturday, what was meant to be a rally against his detention became, as a result of his release, one against the usual suspects instead. A mere 500 people showed. The city even sent fewer police than usual.

“Udaltsov is one of the most driven, ambitious people I’ve ever met,” a liberal involved in opposition politics told me over the weekend. “He’s making a name for himself. When he was arrested last weekend, I was in a coffee shop with some colleagues discussing the protest that had just ended. The security guards at the coffee shop, these completely apolitical people, were talking, saying, ‘Oh, Udaltsov has just been arrested.’ And I think that’s why he does what he does. It’s working well for him.”

And with current Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov turning 68 this year, and with talk about forming a mass party of the left becoming louder, it’s not hard to see why an ambitious young man would go out looking for opportunities to get arrested. Udaltsov has expressed his support for such a party, “with fresh faces included in the leadership,” while former Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky has even suggested that the 35-year-old may be primed to replace Zyuganov as the leader of the Communist Party proper. Udaltsov’s actions should be read in this light. His run-ins with the police play to the Left Front crowd. His apologies for Stalin play to the Communists — the same people, incidentally, who couldn’t stand it if Lenin’s mausoleum was to close.

Meanwhile, he weakens the opposition as a whole. The idea of a mass party of the minority doesn’t help. Like the mass liberal party projects of former finance minister Alexei Kudrin and billionaire presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, the effect of such a party would ultimately be to split the opposition vote. With Putin winning more than 50% as it is — if not necessarily the 63% the authorities claim — this is would be a profoundly self-defeating move.

Given the amount of times the non-systemic opposition has rallied together only to disband shortly after, it would also be a familiar one. Anti-Putinism may have brought the opposition’s constituent parts together over the past few months, and in a way they haven’t been brought together before, too. But shared hatred and shared hatred alone is again proving to be an insufficient adhesive.

Noting the way in which his actions tend to speed up the process of dissolution, I have previously suggested that Udaltsov is strategically incompetent. Increasingly, I tend to think that Udaltsov just doesn’t care.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey