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Dead leaders


The way the USSR treated the death of its leaders was more or less set in stone with the demise of Lenin. Endless symbolism, eulogies and depressing music surrounded the event. The mythical ‘millions’ of mourners, stricken with grief, continually referred to in the press and on the radio, put moral pressure on the real majority, who were made to think ‘Millions are mourning that man, so perhaps I should, too.’

This article deals with Lenin’s funeral in particular, because the political background to that event gave rise to the ritual and customs that prevailed at almost all future leaders’ funerals.

When considering death traditions, it is natural to think that they are about the deceased person. However, in the USSR this was not the case. The practices and cultural signals were aimed not at retrospection but at strengthening the future of the precarious and amateurish regime. No opportunity to consolidate the position of the remaining leaders was lost. Every one of them had their personal agenda and attempted to further it.

The way dead leaders were treated was part of a highly powerful man-made force – the cult of personality. All Soviet leaders had personality cults to a greater or lesser extent. It is worth considering how and why personality cults came into being and their subsequent importance.

Genesis of the cult

In 1922, Stalin was appointed Gerneral Secretary of the party. This was by no means the all-powerful role it came to be. It was a deskbound, unglamorous job requiring dedication and attention to administrative detail. However, this seemingly dull appointment held shining opportunities for Stalin: It placed him in charge of all recruitment, promotion, demotion and dismissal within the higher party bureaucracies throughout the country. Stalin used this apparently dead-end position to employ, promote and patronise his own supporters whilst removing those of other pretenders to the leadership.

Dzerzhinsky (middle) and Kalinin (left) carrying Lenin’s coffin in 1924

Dzerzhinsky (middle) and Kalinin (left) carrying Lenin’s coffin in 1924

By the time Lenin died in 1924, the politburo contained three factions. Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev formed a triumvirate to oppose the other major power, Trotsky. Trotsky was at the height of his fame, power and arrogance. Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov formed a third faction dedicated to Lenin’s New Economic Policy. There was immediately a ‘competition’ among these men to claim the right to be Lenin’s natural ideological and political heir. Thus the constant reference to and praise of Lenin was promoted and followed by all of the highest party functionaries, since closeness to Lenin was seen as the defining qualification for a future leader.

Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, said that Lenin’s wish was to be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg. However Lenin was overruled by those with very different ambitions. The death is recorded as taking place on 21st. January. Five days later, the 2nd. All-Union Congress of Soviets started. Stalin gave a speech, pledging to uphold the behests of Lenin. He also said:

‘You have seen during the past few days the pilgrimage of scores and hundreds of thousands of working people to Comrade Lenin’s bier. Before long you will see the pilgrimage of representatives of millions of working people to Comrade Lenin’s tomb. You need not doubt that the representatives of millions will be followed by representatives of scores and hundreds of millions from all parts of the earth…..’

Thus it is clear that the decision to turn the tomb of Lenin into a site of ‘Pilgrimage’ came from the top down, not from some wave of sympathetic popular feeling.

Various nationalist, religious and mystical theories have suggested that the Russian people themselves caused the birth of the cult. This is not true. The Politburo, led by the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, cynically decided to establish the cult for purely utilitarian political reasons. The cult used metaphysical images and practices calculated to appeal to the traditional Russian mind. Thus Lenin was made a secular saint and his cult established.

Sschusev’s plan for the Lenin Mausoleum, built 1930

Sschusev’s plan for the Lenin Mausoleum, built 1930

The meeting also decided that the city of Petrograd should be renamed Leningrad, his collected works be published in full, a day of mourning established, and statues put up in all the capitals of the USSR constituent republics, and also in Leningrad and Tashkent. His body was embalmed. The brain was removed for study to try to discover the source of his genius. Two temporary mausolea on Red Square were replaced in 1930 with a granite and marble structure. All three were designed by the constructivist architect and VKhUTEMAS teacher, Shchusev.

In 1938 Stalin published his ‘Short Course: The History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)’. It was his personal re-write of history, placing him as Lenin’s true heir and successor. It was rather difficult for his former rivals to argue with that assertion, since Stalin had had them all shot.

The ritual established

Important deaths were announced in newspapers and on the radio. Regular programs would be cancelled and mournful yet heroic music played between news bulletins. The press reports went into explicit medical detail as to the cause of death. This was confirmed by the publication of a declaration from several of the most eminent doctors. Articles about the political significance of the individual covered vast areas of newsprint. Poems were written and printed and songs composed and sung in praise of the great departed one. A period of country-wide mourning would be announced.

The feeling being communicated was one of ‘nationwide’ mourning, of universal grief at the loss of such a wonderful comrade, and felt beyond the borders of the USSR in other friendly countries. The language used to describe the deceased had a standard form: They were ‘loyal sons of the party’ who ‘tirelessly strove for the victory of communism’ in the ‘great Leninist tradition’. The linguistic clichés of communism had little or no meaning – but that was the point. Their acceptance signified non-questionable dominance.

Farewell, dearest Sergo – a true son of a great people’. – Funeral of Ordzhonikidze, 1937 – possibly a faked scene for the cinema, but fact and fiction were equally insignificant in those bleak times.

Farewell, dearest Sergo – a true son of a great people’. – Funeral of Ordzhonikidze, 1937 – possibly a faked scene for the cinema, but fact and fiction were equally insignificant in those bleak times.

In general, only the highest leaders were buried. The lower tiers of the hierarchy and other notables such as astronauts and generals were cremated and their ashes placed into the Kremlin Wall.

Soviet state funeral arrangements were deliberately made to reject and supplant the folk and religious customs of the population. Such funerals were very much Communist Party events, with family participation relegated to subsidiary importance.

brezhnev-funeralThe Politburo would appoint a ‘funeral committee’, the chairman of which (latterly) was usually the successor to the deceased’s official post. This committee arranged a lying in state, which happened in the Hall of Columns in the Central House of Trade Unions, conveniently close to Red Square in Moscow. The body was placed in an open coffin. It was dressed in a dark suit and accompanied with all manner of communist symbolism such as draped red flags and red flowers. There was a guard of honour. Surviving members of the leadership would assemble around the coffin to be photographed with the dead body. They would then kiss the corpse as a farewell gesture and then leave. Members of the general public were encouraged to attend the lying in state. They would queue for hours, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures, and then file past the body. Some Soviet sources say that in three days over 1,000,000 people viewed Lenin’s body. The period of lying in state lasted three days in most cases.

On the day of the funeral, the whole of the USSR was affected. Factories stood still as the funeral happened and trains were stopped on the tracks. The whole of central Moscow was cut off to traffic. Red Square was accessible only to those with special invitations. In the hall, foreign and local guests came forward in strict order to pay their respects.

The coffin was carried out of the hall, often on the shoulders of the immediate colleagues of the deceased, and placed on a gun carriage. Sometimes a large framed photograph of the departed one was carried in front of the procession. His medals and orders were placed on cushions carried by army officers. Wreaths were carried by further soldiers. The mourners walked at a slow march, accompanying the coffin as it was borne down to Manezh Square and then up the incline into Red Square. It stopped in front of Lenin’s mausoleum and eulogies were read. Then the coffin was carried to a cordoned-off area right under the Kremlin Wall. This was the moment for family members to bid farewell. The lid was then secured and the coffin lowered into the grave. (The coffin containing Brezhnev was nearly dropped into the grave by incompetent workers).

A personal note:

I remember well the ritual surrounding the death of Yuri Andropov in 1984 (- the year, not the book, although it could well have been either). I was a ‘western’ student in Moscow at that time and was told I had to go to a special room in the institute with two of my fellows to pay our respects to the departed leader. Inside the room was nothing except a table on which were placed a large and rather unflattering photographic portrait of the deceased flanked by red flags and some peripheral floral arrangements. We were to stand to attention in front of the portrait, bow our heads in silent contemplation for about 20 seconds, then leave. This strange ritual must have been repeated millions of times throughout the USSR in factories, schools, universities and institutions. All the students were told that parties and music in the student quarters would not be tolerated until well after the funeral. I wondered how ‘enforced mourning’ such as this could be significant for anyone and concluded that sincerity was not the point. The important thing was that observance of this and many other such pointless rituals re-affirmed the dominance of the hierachy and the consequent subservience of the individual. It was just yet another tool they used to get into your head. Communism was, for a brief time, a highly efficient secular religion.

A.A. (QED)


Chamber of horrors

Many visit the Kremlin Wall necropolis in Moscow and walk past the graves on the way to the tomb of Lenin. In many ways the graves and the niches in the wall are far more interesting than the sad remains of Ulyanov.

The line of burials behind the mausoleum, from left to right as one faces the wall from Red Square is as follows: Suslov, Stalin*, Kalinin, Andropov, Dzherzhinsky, Brezhnev, Sverdlov, Frunze, Zhdanov, Voroshilov, Budenny, Chernenko.

Khrushchev and Yeltsin, ex-leaders of the USSR and Russia respectively, are buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Khrushchev was clearly not considered worthy of a place under the Kremlin Wall, although many of the most prolific criminals of the twentieth century are commemorated there. Yeltsin’s interment signified a return to burial on ‘holy’ ground. It is worth remembering that in 1977, Yeltsin, whilst an active (and rich) high-ranking communist official, ordered the destruction of the house in Ekaterinburg where the Russian royal family had been executed in 1918, lest it become a place of ‘pilgrimage’ for the people during the celebrations of 60 years of the USSR. The Bolsheviks understood the cult of personality, particularly for the dead.

*Stalin was originally placed in the mausoleum next to Lenin but was removed after seven years and buried outside.

Plan of Graves behind Lenin Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow

Plan of Graves behind Lenin Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow

Original footage of:

Lenin’s funeral, with film of noteworthy Bolsheviks

Ordzhonikidze’s funeral (archive footage contained in modern documentary)

Stalin’s funeral – the official Soviet documentary film

Brezhnev’s funeral, including the notorious ‘dropping’ of his coffin at 1Hr 15m into the broadcast

Andropov’s funeral, attended by Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher etc.

Chernenko’s funeral – the last Kremlin Wall burial